Posted in Film, Writing

Why Mirrors Are So Effective in Horror Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Oculus (2014)

The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.

Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus, released in 2014, was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.

Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan (who has gone on to make the terrifying Gerald’s Game and the monumentally creepy The Haunting of Hill House for Nextflix) understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.

One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline were jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.

The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed.

Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012’s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.

Watching Like a Writer

This film makes me think about how mirrors can be used so effectively in horror fiction. It might be a touch scarier in a film or TV episode than it is on the page for the reader, but mirrors have always struck me as a particularly useful tool in my scarier stories. Like I said in this review, one of my earliest stories I ever wrote was about a haunted mirror (and if I remember correctly, the title was Mirrors Can Be Deadly and I wrote two sequels!). My first screenplay I ever wrote had a haunted mirror. So many short films I wrote and directed used mirrors in the visual storytelling. I’ve always been obsessed with mirrors, and finally, after all this time, I’m beginning to outline a middle-grade horror novel that will use mirrors as a part of the story. What makes them so creepy? How can they be used in a way we’ve never seen before?

Exercise!

Pitch me a scene from your latest WIP that a mirror could play a major role in. What does the mirror add to the scene, and to the development of one of your major characters?

Posted in Writing

What To Do if You Want to Write

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In If You Want to Write, published in 1938, author Brenda Ueland shares her philosophies on writing. One central idea she stresses is the idea that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. The book was republished in 1987 by Graywolf Press, and it remains to this day their most popular title. Carl Sandburg, famous poetry and non-fiction author and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, called this the best book ever written on how to write.

Born in 1891, Ueland published six million words over her long career as a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. Besides If You Want to Write, she has published one other book, an autobiography entitled Me: A Memoir, in 1939. Since her death, a collection of her writing has been published, as has a biography she wrote about her mother in the 1950s. However, If You Want to Write remains her most famous work.

There are plenty of practical advantages of this text to a writer of any discipline. Make clear that this nor the other book gives any specific how-to writing lessons, but instead offers nuggets of wisdom that all writers should learn from. The most practical pieces of advice: always write from a place of truth, write with abandon and freedom, never write for money or to impress people, take a walk every day to help with ideas, and to take the time every day to just sit and wait for the inspiration.

The primary audience of writers of all kinds — fiction writers, non-fiction writers, memoir writers — while the secondary audience is anyone who creates. She even discusses at one point in the book that she hopes this book would be helpful for all artists, including filmmakers, actors, painters, sculptors, and more. It is one of those rare books that writers can turn to time and time again in their lives when they get stuck, when they feel like they’re doing mediocre work, when they’re not happy with their work. Stress this isn’t a book that shows you how to learn to write better descriptions or characters, or reflects on themes and point of view and how to get an agent. It’s a book of inspiration that writers can breeze through anyone they need a kick in the pants to get better in their writing. And it forces them to always, always, always tell the truth.

Her best nuggets of wisdom: We find things to do besides art all the time. Mothers clean their kids instead of playing the piano. Men go to work in a cubicle all day instead of writing a poem. “It won’t pay.” “People will think it’s silly.” Never, never write if your only goal is one of two things: make money, or impress people. The real writers are those who were told they would never be published again, would never make another cent again, yet would still go on writing.

If you try to write something for money, it will be stiff and stale. If you write something out of love, it will be better. Uses a Renaissance nobleman and Vincent van Gogh as examples of men who wrote out of love and nothing else, and created beautiful works of art. She says, even if you never get your writing published or make a dime, it is still worthy work.

If the ideas aren’t coming, sit at your desk for an hour and free-write. Or look out the window and count the clouds in the sky. Do something simple like that. She suggests the best way to get the inspiration flowing is to take a walk outside every day. A long, carefree walk. Look around you, be in the present. This is when ideas come.

A trouble with writers is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. This kind of thinking doesn’t get the writer anywhere. She was able as a teacher to break them of this and have them write in a true, remarkable way. Instead of criticizing them, she helped them be more free and bold. To be careless, reckless. To write any way they want. She gives writers courage, not criticism.

Microscopic truthfulness: one needs to tell a story, not write it. It does no good to make your writing sound more intelligent, or snappier, if the characters aren’t alive on the page. She talks of a student who is an okay writer, but her work is so commonplace, filled with little detail and freshness. In her first stories, she tried to sell, to make an impression, and this weakened her writing. Her truthfulness when she examined the servant called forth more empathy in her observation.

Truth in writing is more important than fancy words! Never let “oughts” block you. I ought to be funnier, I ought to be wiser. This will hinder your writing. Don’t write like an advertising writer. If you don’t feel it, don’t write it. Tell the truth about your characters. Did your character really fasten a grip against the armchair until his knuckles turned white? If they didn’t turn white, it’s false! Don’t write it! Remember that I write slowly, but the reader reads fast! The reader constantly wants to know what is going to happen next. Don’t forget this. If what I write bores me, it will bore other people! If you try to prove something to the world, and go after fame and fortune, the writing will read false. Everyone should work on their writing every day. Work and shine eternally. Don’t worry so much about the whole of your novel. Write what comes next.

Lastly, try not to plan so much when writing a book. Write first, then plan later. Again discusses why she hates critics. Says they kill the soul of the writer. She feels sorry for English teachers because they have to nitpick and hate on so much. Instead of love, the hate drowns their own creativity! It is because of the haters and the doubters that we have such timidity when we write. We have to move past it.

Posted in Books, Writing

How to Tell the Difference Between Horror and Thriller

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In 2016 I spent a year writing and revising an action-packed YA book that I queried to literary agents as a horror novel. I received lots of feedback, both good and bad, but the most surprising feedback that entered my e-mail inbox, from two separate agents no doubt, gave me the same advice: I’m incorrectly pitching my novel as horror, when it’s actually a thriller. This advice astounded me, and made me reconsider everything I knew about the genre I love. How could I possibly confuse a genre I thought I understood so well with another?

This got me to thinking how similar the genres actually are, how in many ways they both try to deliver scares and surprises and page-turning suspense to the reader. And so I decided it was time to explore in depth these two genres and study how they are similar and different, what audience expectations there are of the genres, and how I should move forward in exploring the genres in my own writing. I will begin by defining the horror novel and the thriller novel and exploring their histories, and I will next examine two important works in each genre and discuss why each belongs to its specific genre. Ultimately the two genres are incredibly similar, enough so that I would suggest that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, although not all thrillers are necessarily horror.

In her book, Horror Fiction: An Introduction, Gina Wisker defines horror as “located in both the real and the nightmarish imaginary, and an important ingredient in its success is the ability to entertain, terrify, problematize […] horror is a taste acquired by those with sufficient imagination to see beyond, beneath, and through what we take for granted as normal and familiar” (2). In effect, horror has been popular for so long not just because of its chill factor, and not because it can make a person jump in terror out of his or her seat; it has the ability to touch on the dark elements of our lives in ways no other genre can.

In his masterful 1981 non-fiction book about the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King says, “novels dealing with horror always do their work on two levels. On top is the ‘gross-out’ level […] the gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it’s always there. But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level” (17–18). King is saying that horror can often just be the gross-out, the jump scare, the monster behind the curtain who yells “Boo!” But he is also describing what I love best about horror, that it can go deeper and probe the dark parts of human nature that is so often left off the page in other kinds of fiction.

What I’ve always loved about horror is the way it can creep under my skin and make me question my own morality in the face of death or evil. The best horror writing should make me question myself. As King says, “Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world? The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools to dismantle themselves” (26). In essence he is saying that horror is helpful, and that facing fictional fears from the comfort of my own home allows me to work through inner demons that may not be able to come out in any other way.

Horror novels have taken many shapes over the years, always evolving to both audience’s tastes and the changing landscapes of the real world. Thought to be the first real horror novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published back in 1764, where “Gothic’s representations of extreme circumstances of terror, oppression, and persecution, darkness and obscurity of setting, and innocence betrayed are considered to begin” (Lloyd-Smith 3). Much of the famous early works of horror deliver jolts and scares that are more intellectual to readers than what most will find in novels of the horror genre today, but many of the same themes hold true today. This early Gothic period focused on subjects like taboos, sexuality, violence, injustice, and social fears and anxieties, and these elements have appeared in horror fiction throughout the centuries.

Consider the most famous horror novel released in the 1800s: Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel is about one of the ultimate taboos — creating a living, breathing human being from the body parts of dead people — and seeing the horrifying consequences in its sad, explicit detail, touching on “deeper psychology” and “complex motivations in characters divided against themselves” (Lloyd-Smith 134). This classic novel continues to be highly regarded and studied in the modern era because it touches on dangers and ideas that remain frightening to this day.

Of course horror evolved considerably over the decades, particularly in the twentieth century. One of the granddaddies of the genre that became the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie is the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, Psycho, about a motel owner who dresses up as his mother and murders innocent women who stay at his establishment. This classic book is an example of non-supernatural horror, a story set completely in reality that is terrifying for the reader because it talks of despicable human actions that could potentially happen to him or her. As opposed to the safer supernatural horror, which allows readers to “control the horrors […] evoke your vampire out of the grave, and at the end drive a stake through his heart and pull him back, [a] way of handling evil,” the readers are thrust into a situation that offers no safe escape (Schweitzer 16).

As Terry Heller says in his book The Delights of Terror, “though most people will never be trapped in a belfry or in a contracting prison cell, many will find themselves in analogous situations: traffic accidents, muggings, fires and diseases. […] We seek out such stories [as Psycho] to explore the psychological extremes that arise from physical danger” (29). This is not to say that supernatural horror novels don’t provide this kind of mental exercise from readers; Stephen King’s The Shining is a prime example of a work that shines a light on both fantasy horror and realistic horror, giving readers a chance to feel control over the outlandish situations of the narrative, while at the same time dig deep within themselves to approach their fears over true physical and psychological crises.

As this overview of the horror genre proves, people have always loved to be terrified — but they’ve also always loved to be thrilled. The thriller genre has been around as long as or potentially even longer than the horror novel, and although the two genres share similar traits, the thriller is different in many ways. A thriller goes beyond trying to scare the reader and trying to fill the reader with dread; it relies entirely on suspense every step of the way. In his book Writing the Thriller, author T. Macdonald Skillman says, “Suspense is emotional. It’s surprise and confusion and fear and anticipation. And suspense is danger. Immediate danger. It’s worrying about what’s going to happen, not about the action taking place at that moment. […] [Therefore] a true [thriller novel] is a book about characters who find themselves trapped in a series of increasingly frightening incidents that force them to take extraordinary steps to survive” (7). What Skillman is saying here is that while there may be frightening moments the same way there would be in a horror novel, the thriller is more interested in filling the reader with anticipation toward the state of the main characters and the increasingly complex plot.

In his book Thrillers, author Jerry Palmer says, “In the thriller, suspense derives from the adoption of a single perspective that is associated first and foremost with a [hero]. This is what differentiates thriller suspense from other forms” (61). Unlike horror, which is often written in third person and utilizes multiple points of view and can even be told from the point-of-view of the villain, thrillers generally put readers up close with the hero for every suspenseful step of the narrative. They can often be more generic than horror in a way because they offer more predictability, the journey with a central protagonist who the reader often knows will defeat the villain and live to see another day.

The thriller novel is in many ways much more broad than the horror novel, and this in return allows for the thriller to spread across to many more subgenres, including action, spy, and more. Believed to be the first true thriller is Homer’s The Odyssey, with a story of great excitement about a man trying to find his way home. A thriller needs great tension throughout, as Skillman says, “every scene [in a thriller needs to] generate both conflict and tension at some level” (43). There needs to be thrills, there needs to be suspense, but a thriller doesn’t necessarily have to terrify the way a horror novel does. Great thriller novels provide suspense and constant excitement, not necessarily terror.

One of the most famous thrillers of the twentieth century is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which became the equally compelling Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tale of a man wrongfully accused of a crime and on the run lends itself to tremendous excitement from beginning to end, particularly in regards to the pacing. Skillman says, “The pacing demands of a [thriller] are less forgiving [than other novels]. Readers who pick up a thriller expect to be kidnapped by fear and action and dragged along on a wild ride. They’re looking for a breakneck journey that rarely slows down long enough to explore dead ends or enjoy a plate of fried chicken served up with a side of flirtation” (138). Readers of thrillers expect to flip through the pages ferociously, while readers of horror expect more fear and dread on the page and not necessarily this kind of breakneck speed to the narrative. Lastly, thrillers can exist in specific subgenres that horror wouldn’t necessarily be found in. The James Bond novels by Ian Fleming fit in the spy thriller subgenre; Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is also a well-known spy thriller. Other subgenres include the legal thriller, the military thriller, the medical thriller, and lots more.

In the last few months I have studied a novel that I believe to be strictly horror, and a novel that I believe works solely as a thriller. To start with horror, let’s examine Joe Hill’s 2013 novel, NOS4A2. This book tells the story of a child abductor who harbors children in a creepy place called Christmasland and the girl who managed to escape him who grows up to be a strong woman ready to take him down. It features a few specific elements that make this a strict horror novel. First, this is a supernatural novel, one that includes an entire alternate world that the protagonist finds herself stuck inside for a huge chunk of the narrative. Generally thrillers are set in the world as we know and understand it, while horror often features ghouls and goblins and takes the main characters to unknown places. Second, Hill uses the normally celebratory aspect of the Christmas holiday season as a source of fear and dread throughout the book, turning the reader’s warm and nostalgic feelings for the holiday into a menacing kind of terror. Hill writes, “He leaned over the stool, both hands on its edge, and took a long, trembling breath — and smelled the Christmassy odor of gingerbread again. He almost flinched, the fragrance was so strong and clear” (273). The smell of gingerbread often fills one with pleasure, and the maniacal villain of NOS4A2 knows it, making it one of his prime weapons to seduce children to their doom.

Hill also goes for the gross-out from time to time in a way an author of a thriller would rarely approach in his writing, specific gory details that feel only appropriate for a horror novel: “Mr. Manx had changed. He was missing his left ear — it was tatters of flesh, little crimson strings swinging against his cheek. […] A great flap of loose red skin hung from his brow. His eyes were gone, and where they had been were buzzing red holes — not bloody sockets but craters containing live coals” (415). Notice how this description of Mr. Manx’s grisly new appearance goes on and on, Hill delighting in the disgust of his imagery. Even if Mr. Manx were a human being who had some kind of a trauma occur to his face, the thriller writer would not take a paragraph to describe every aspect of his horrid face — he would keep the narrative chugging along to keep the reader flipping through the pages.

An author of horror is allowed to take his time, setting up scenes of terror and repulsion in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to be moments of non-stop action; of course, horror often does have non-stop action, with scenes of great tension and suspense, and NOS4A2 features many terrific moments that could exist under the thriller model, like this one: “She began to push herself up once more, and Charlie Manx came down with his silver hammer again and hit her in the back, and she heard her spine break with a sound like someone stepping on a cheap toy: a brittle, plasticky crunch. The blunt force drove the wind out of her and slammed her back to her stomach” (351). This tense scene still provides one or two minor descriptions that may aim for shock value more than one would find in a standard thriller, but Hill’s prose still offer the kind of suspense that carries over to both popular genres.

Now let’s discuss Scott Smith’s 1993 thriller A Simple Plan and see what Smith does differently. A Simple Plan tells of three men who discover four million dollars in a crashed airplane and do everything in their power to keep the money a secret, resulting in unthinkable tragedy. Let’s start with the suspense aspect, which Skillman discussed in his craft book. Between the opening scene of the men finding the crashed plane and the four million dollars and the scene of Hank causing havoc in a middle-of-nowhere mini-mart, this book offers nearly non-stop suspense, with even the quietest moments filled with constant tension. Smith gets us to love the characters early on and relate to them well, so when they’re put in perilous situations, when any one of them could be captured by the police or killed, we stay on the edge of our seats. Smith’s suspense prose is simple, elegant, never too show-offy. He writes, “I took off my jacket, unbuttoned my shirt, and slid the pistol into my waistband, barrel first, fiddling with it until it felt secure. It was in the center of my belly, sharp and cold against my skin, its grip pointing to the right” (337). Smith works like Alfred Hitchcock in a way, delaying the shocking moments, because he knows, like all the best storytellers, that it’s the anticipation of the gunshot that’s more suspenseful than the gunshot itself.

Unlike Hill, who will often relish the gory details, Smith is more interested in the suspense of a scene the way a thriller writer should be. I think one telling moment is Scott’s description of a dead body early on in the novel: “His eyes had been eaten out by the bird. Their dark sockets stared at me, his head rolling a bit to the right on his neck. The flesh around his eyes had been chewed completely away” (20). Compare this description with the one Hill gives of Mr. Manx. Both feature grisly details and glimpses of gore, but Smith’s is more subtle, more attuned to how an average Joe would describe a dead body he discovered in the snowy woods. Smith never goes for a gross-out moment because he thinks it might scare the reader; any moment of terror, like when two central characters are shot and killed at a farm house, is written as realistic suspense that feels set up and earned, never grisly and exploitative.

Unlike NOS4A2, A Simple Plan is written in first person, so the reader gets a closer look at the main character Hank’s inner musings. Since thrillers more often deal with ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations, the reader of A Simple Plan gets to follow Hank as he makes one poor decision after another, the reader becoming an accomplice who asks him or herself, “Would I do the same thing if I were Hank?” Smith writes, “I realized that I’d crossed a boundary, done something abhorrent, brutal, something I never would have imagined myself capable of. I’d taken another man’s life” (91). This connection we get to the protagonist offers additional suspense because unlike Mr. Manx in NOS4A2, who we know from the first chapter is a bad man who does terrible things, Hank is someone we can identify with, and so much of the suspense comes from wanting to see him get out of his increasingly desperate situation.

In looking at the histories of the two genres and examining two specific novels, I have come to a few conclusions as to what makes a horror novel different from a thriller novel. My thesis is that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, while most thrillers are not necessarily horror, and I feel like this statement holds true through the following points…

First, a horror novel is intended to scare and/or disgust a reader by inducing feelings and emotions of terror, while a thriller is meant to excite and entertain a reader through the use of constant tension and suspense. Can a horror novel offer excitement and suspense to a reader from beginning to end? Yes. Although some horror novels can go as slow as they please, other famous works like Jack Ketchum’s horror novel The Girl Next Door features moments that shock and terrify, while at the same time giving non-stop suspense throughout its three hundred pages. A thriller, on the other hand, will not typically cross these boundaries, the writer not so interested in gory details and moments of repulsion as he is in offering endless tension.

Second, many horror novels are set in a supernatural realm, while thrillers are almost always set in the real world and are about ordinary citizens who get trapped in extraordinary circumstances. If one begins reading a suspenseful story and can’t right away decide if it’s horror or thriller, one easy question to ask yourself is if it’s realistic or if it’s speculative. As soon as a vampire or a ghost or a creature from Christmasland shows up, know you’re in horror territory. Having said that, though, not all horror novels are supernatural; Stephen King’s Misery is known far and wide as a work of horror, even though it’s set entirely in the real world. But if there is a supernatural element, know you’re likely in the realm of horror.

Third, the POV often gives a clue as to which genre we’re in; horror is often written in third person while thrillers are often written in first person. Third person allows some distance, which allows the author to build on fear and dread, to create a tone that will frighten the reader. First person allows a closer look into the hero’s head, which adds to the suspense because the reader is more greatly invested in his or her central dilemma. Are there horror novels written in first and thrillers written in third? Of course there are, but POV can in many cases be a tip-off to what genre you’re reading. In the end, the genres remain similar, but these three points help shed light on what often makes them different.

Although I have always been more passionate about the horror genre, the thriller genre has also played an important role in both my reading life and my writing life, and I have come to respect both genres as essential in my exploration in authoring works of suspense. Both work on similar and different levels, many of which I’ve explored in this paper, but it’s important to me as I move forward to have a clear understanding of the genres as separate entities and what readers, agents, and publishers will come to expect when I pitch my latest novel as either horror or thriller. Maybe, in the end, I can feel safe with my latest novel being pitched as a horror-thriller since the two genres overlap to such a stunning degree. Consider the relationship between the genres a subversive kind of love story, one fraught with murder and dread and tension, and most especially, suspense.

Works Cited

Heller, Teller. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 1987. Print.

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow and Company: New York, 2013. Print.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House: New York, 1981. Print.

Lloyd-Smith, Alan. American Gothic: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2004. Print.

Palmer, Jerry. Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1979. Print.

Schweitzer, Darrell. Speaking of Horror: Interviews with Writers of the Supernatural. The Borgo Press: San Bernadino, 1994. Print.

Skillman, T. MacDonald. Writing the Thriller: How to Craft Page-Turning Suspense With Instruction from Best-Selling Authors. Writer’s Digest Books: New York, 2000. Print.

Smith, Scott. A Simple Plan. Knopf: New York, 1993. Print.

Wisker, Gina. Horror Fiction: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2005. Print.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Put Your Own Spin on Road Trip Stories

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is one of my favorite directors. I have loved all five of his previous features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents), and Nebraska is yet another gem to add to his filmography. He has a gift for getting incredible performances from his actors, whether they’re well known stars like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney, or character actors who you might never have seen before. He is known for finding non-actors to populate the bit parts in his movies, to give the settings more realism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the smaller roles in this were filled with locals, too. He does a great job in each of his films blending comedy and drama; typically there’s at least one scene of riotous comedy, as well as a significant dramatic moment toward the end that takes your breath away. Nebraska has both of these scenes, and lots more.

Shot in stunning black-and-white, Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a 70-something alcoholic who receives a letter in the mail claiming he is the recipient to a million-dollar prize. Thinking it’s the truth, he starts to make the long trek between Michigan and Nebraska by foot, until his son David (Will Forte) elects to drive him. David and his mother Kate (June Squibb) know the letter is bogus, but David doesn’t care; he looks at this trip as one of the last he will ever have with his aging father. They stop in their old hometown a couple hundred miles before Lincoln, and of course get bombarded by everyone when they mistakenly think that Woody has won the prize money. In the process, David discovers more about his father than he ever could have imagined.

The film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but arguably its most deserving nomination of all didn’t happen. Yes, Bruce Dern is magnificent in the lead, giving his character a signature walk, a jaded dip of the head, a couple of blinks in almost every shot that tell the audience he’s only partway present. Yes, June Squibb is a hoot as his wife, offering the most laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue in the movie, especially in a perfectly executed scene when she tells off members of her extended family. But there is one actor who holds the movie together, who gives it the heart and soul, and that’s Will Forte. Naturally, that’s a sentence I never expected to ever write.

Payne likes to gives all sorts of actors chances (Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, for example, were pretty low on the D-list before he gave them career-best roles in Sideways), and it was a bit of inspired genius to give Forte, known for his wild comedy on SNL and in films like MacGruber, a totally ordinary dramatic role, one that essentially carries the whole movie. He is a revelation here, totally convincing as a 30-something man whose life has grown stale in work and relationships and who sees this bogus letter as a way to spend time with his dad.

All of the performances are stellar. Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk are also solid here. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone!) are scene-stealers as a pair of lazy brothers. Finally, an actress named Angela McEwan, who plays an old flame of Woody’s, has one superb scene about halfway through the movie, reminiscing about the man she wanted to marry, which is followed in the end by a brief moment that was moving enough to bring tears to my eyes. With an emotional stare, and no words, McEwan says so very much. Amazing.

It should be noted how thrilling it was to see a modern film up on the screen shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white. How many B&W movies do we get a year? One, maybe two, if we’re lucky. The Coen Brothers got to shoot one in 2001 with The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Steven Spielberg famously chose it for Schindler’s List. There is a haunting quality to black and white that color can never give, and I loved its use of it here. The same way Woody Allen used B&W to give a dream-like quality to the city he loves in Manhattan, Payne uses it to show the vast and empty landscapes of the mid-west. Black and white ultimately makes a movie feel timeless, and it is a tool that enhances the dramatic power of this movie. I hope this film’s success will inspire more directors to use black-and-white to tell their stories.

Watching Like a Writer

The road trip story. It’s been done a gazillion times, in film and in novels. It’s an easy way to tell a Quest narrative, characters going after something, where they begin in one place, literally and figuratively, and end in another place, literally and figuratively. Probably my favorite road trip movie is Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a comedy of friendship that has one of the most tender endings ever. Nebraska is another brilliant film that uses the road trip narrative, blending comedy and drama in a father-son story that ultimately isn’t so much about the destination but more about the characters themselves. I’m in the middle of revising a road trip story right now actually, a horror-thriller that is a whole lot more Mad Max: Fury Road than it is Nebraska, but no matter what genre you’re working in, a road trip for your characters can allow for great conflict and consistent raising of the stakes.

Exercise!

Pitch a one-sentence logline about a potential novel you could write about characters taking a road trip. What would be the genre? How would you put your own spin on the story?

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Happy Endings that Feel Earned

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

This is it. This is the one. The mother of all Christmas movies. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation comes close, It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, Home Alone is still a personal favorite, and all those claymation movies from the ’60s, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, are a lot of fun. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains the cream of the crop in my eyes. It does so much in so few minutes. It has a sweet message that never tires. It features one of the most memorable antagonists in movie history. The songs are perfect. The narration is terrific. And it gets in and out in under a half-hour. It’s about as close to a perfect film as they come.

There was great controversy in the year 2000 when Ron Howard’s live-action feature-length version of the story was released to theaters. I mean, the idea of it solicited promise. Jim Carrey as the Grinch? And Howard, who had so much success beforehand working in all sorts of genres, proved to be a capable choice of director. It’s dark, grimy, ugly. The movie didn’t work at all.

The live-action version has come and gone, and the one that will stay around forever is the animated short. This movie is the real deal. From the opening animation and song that cause goose-bumps, all the way to the happy but in no way sentimental ending that finds The Grinch carving that giant roast beast with the Whos, the film is sublime entertainment. I truly never get tired of it.

Some maniacal genius decided to allow Frankenstein’s monster himself Boris Karloff to do the voice work, and he is a fantastic choice. His voice is distinct in a way that will never be repeated again. The film features three songs, all of which stay in your memory long after the movie has ended. They could’ve been annoying, and for some reason, they should be, but they work completely. And the movie features animation that looks dated, of course (it is 1966 after all) but that quality, to me anyway, makes the movie more endearing.

My favorite moment is at the end, of course, when we find out what the Whos find to be the true meaning of Christmas, even when all their presents have come to be stolen by the morning. Lately I watch this ending feeling a bit cynical, thinking that if this were to actually happen on a wealthy street in today’s society, the kids and parents would be clawing at each others’ throats. But I try not to think about that. I try to let the movie’s message fill me with the kind of hope I need lately. In most films, an ending like this would make me want to throw up, but it works in this. Why? We identify so much with the Grinch’s demeanor (I mean, everyone hates Christmas a little), and we’re taken by surprise by how these creatures react to the news that there are no material goods. We’re surprised, and the Grinch is surprised. And what happens to him after this twist development is one of the most heart-warming arcs of a character in animation history.

I love this movie. I’ll love it to the day I die. It’s rare to find a Christmas movie that blends together a wonderful story, memorable songs, a superb main character, and beautiful animation all in one neat package that people of any age can watch and enjoy. While most contemporary Christmas movies put money in the studio banks, only to be forgotten six months later, a movie like the 1966 classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! will live on for many more years to come. It’s one of the classic stories of all time.

Watching Like a Writer

It’s easy to bring cynicism into your endings, and it’s also easy to write an ending so cutesy and sentimental that the reader can’t help but roll his or her eyes. Something this animated classic does so well is feature a happy ending that feels both earned and unexpected, one that shows a much-needed arc in the central character. I’ve always been a fan of dark endings in my own fiction, but movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas gives me the inspiration to aim for more happy endings, ones that are emotionally satisfying without being cloying.

Exercise!

Think about the ending of your work-in-progress. Is there a way to make it a happy one without making it overly sentimental? How so?

Posted in Books, Writing

My Favorite Writing Lessons from Ray Bradbury

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Published in 1990, Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays written by Ray Bradbury about his love of writing. The essays were written over the course of thirty years, not all at once for this collection. But they echo the same truths behind one’s writing.

Ray Bradbury is the writer behind many classic works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He wrote twenty-seven novels, and he also wrote for movies. He won multiple awards, including the Emmy award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

There are many practical advantages here, especially in what he discusses in the early essays. Some practical pieces of advice he gives: number one is to write 1,000 words a day, every day (kind of like Stephen King’s rule!), he recommends that you don’t think so much when you write and try to be free, the usefulness of reading more poetry to understand how to use more senses in your writer, and he also recommends we write from a place of truth.

The primary audience here is writers of fiction, particularly short story writers, since, as a speculative fiction writer, he discusses in depth strategies to strengthen your plots and characters. The secondary audience is anyone who loves to read, because he goes into not only strategies in writing but backstories of how some of his most famous books came to be.

Ray Bradbury is one of the most popular and important authors of the twentieth century, and this, his one and only non-fiction book, is worthy of study by all who are interested in writing, because he offers sound advice on how to better your writing, produce more writing, always write from a place of truth. Ultimately this book makes you fall in love with writing all over again.

Bradbury recommends you run fast when writing, and stand still when you need to observe. One or the other, and nothing in between. He goes on to give biographical details, telling how in the beginning he imitated writers he liked and only occasionally wrote something worthy of interest. He wrote out a list of nouns, picked one at random, and wrote a story. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE LOCKET. THE BEACH. Had a story called THE THING where he wrote down the noun in 1926 and finally wrote the story in 1986.

He recommends you not just sit around and wait for the muse to show up. He says to read a lot of poetry. Every day! Also, essays. Any collection you can find. He wants you to find books that help your senses, in the way you describe things in your writing. The one thing that holds it all together? Excitement! You have to be excited about your writing, or it will die a quick death on the page.

He says that he writes 1,000 words or more every single day, and would average at least one story a week, if not more, since he started writing in his teens. It took him years to write something good, but it was all about practice, practice, practice. When he turned twenty-five, he sold three stories in three days!

In the last major chapter, Bradbury discusses the importance of work and relaxation as a writer. The work must be done, but the writer also needs to relax. We can’t do it just for the money, or the fame and fortune. We have to write from truth. We have to write what speaks to us, what makes us unique. If we can find our truth, we can really start saying something.

Posted in Film, Writing

How an Unusual Structure Can Benefit Your Novel

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines is a superb achievement, a film that plays out like a great thought-provoking novel. Derek Cianfrance’s first feature Blue Valentine was one of my favorite films of 2010, and I had high expectations for his follow-up. I had a feeling walking in this film was going to be good, but I didn’t prepare for how good.

This is one of those two-and-a-half-hour movies I could have easily watched another hour of. There’s a startling immediacy to Cianfrance’s work, from the look of his films, to the raw performances, to stories that go to very dark places. His films aren’t for everyone, but I found Blue Valentine, and now The Place Beyond the Pines, two of the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

In essence you get three mesmerizing short films in The Place Beyond the Pines for the price of one. One story involves Gosling — who continues, movie after movie, to pick great material and deliver exceptional performances — as a motorcycle stunt rider who discovers a fling he had resulted in a one-year-old child, and he starts robbing banks in order to contribute to the baby’s future.

Another story involves a cop (Bradley Cooper) who gets caught up in corruption at work and has to decide whether to rat on his fellow policemen or look the other way.

The last story involves a turbulent friendship between two teenagers who get in deep trouble when they find out just who each other is, and what their backgrounds mean to their uncertain futures. It’s a weird comparison, but the film reminded me of Psycho, in the way the narrative is structured. Essentially you think the film is about one thing, and then in ten seconds time, you realize it’s about something else. This happens twice in the film, even though in the end all the stories connect in a way that satisfies way more than any traditional narrative could have provided.

The Place Beyond the Pines may have reminded me of Psycho in its structure, but in its themes it brought to mind movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. It’s an epic that’s not on the level of those two masterpieces, but in my mind is just one notch lower. As much as I love Blue Valentine, it’s a film very limited in scope, as it examines the relationship between two people in two very different periods of their lives.

The Place Beyond the Pines has a much broader canvas, dealing with multiple important characters over three stories, in different time periods. Yet Cianfrance still manages to keep this sprawling narrative tight and intimate at all times, and continues, even when a major character is long gone, to flash back to the beginning, to where the epic journey began. Some may be disappointed as to the fate of a major character, some may cry “how convenient” in the third act. But these surprising developments make for some of the most riveting drama I’ve seen up on the screen in many months. I was enthralled in every scene of this film.

In two films Cianfrance has been blessed with impressive casts, and everyone raises their game in The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling is as dynamic as ever; if he could work with Cianfrance forever and ever, the world of cinema would be a better place.

And there’s Bradley Cooper, an actor I never imagined I would find in two of my favorite recent films. As great as he was in the first Hangover movie, he came into his own in Silver Linings Playbook, and he delivers just as impressive a performance here, as a cop who many call a hero but has so much guilt on his conscience that he’s having trouble surviving. When it looks like things are going downhill, and fast, for him, Cooper doesn’t hesitate in showing his character’s supreme desperation.

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve always been obsessed with unusual structures in novels and film. Think of Pulp Fiction, think of Memento. The Place Beyond the Pines also does some interesting things with its structure, and if you’re willing to follow a great storyteller who knows what’s he doing, films like these can be exhilarating experiences. I feel the same way about books that don’t commit to the obvious structure. I’ve been paying more attention to POV the last few years, and I’m always startled with an author switches from first person to third person throughout the book, or allows for a minor character to suddenly get a POV chapter halfway through. Structure is so important to a compelling story, and sometimes you have to go against the obvious to produce something spectacular.

Exercise!

Pitch me a novel project that would have some kind of unusual structure. What would the story be about? Who would be your protagonist? Would there be more than one protagonist, like in The Place Beyond the Pines?