by Gary A. Braunbeck
A writer friend of mine was busy making final revisions on a story he was planning to submit to an anthology. He asked me if I wold look at his story and offer suggestions and opinions. I read the story over, and while a full 75% of it was rock-solid, the final sequence seemed to me to fall victim to over-ripe melodrama.
Now, instead of just saying outright that the finale was over-baked (and a bit nonsensical), I instead pointed out to him what I saw as the place where the story wandered off the highway. It had to do specifically with the nature of a central character’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis mid-way through on which the rest of the story’s events were hinged. The precise nature of this metamorphosis, and what the character intended to accomplish with it, were unclear and — I felt — because of their nebulousness, robbed the story of any impact; instead, they had chosen to finish things off with a (figurative) loud and histrionic display of horrific fireworks.
I began asking him specific questions about the precise nature of this character’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis: what exact physical change was taking place, how it affected the character’s ultimate goal, and what that ultimate goal was supposed to be.
“What exactly is the nature of this change?” I asked.
“It’s a supernatural transformation,” was his reply.
“But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?”
“I don’t know…it’s just a supernatural transformation,” he again said.
“That’s not good enough,” I replied. “In order for you to get from the mid-point of the story to a more logical, chilling, and less cartoonish ending, you have to know exactly the nature of this transformation, how it affects the character’s psychological and spiritual make-up, and what the character’s ultimate goal is once this transformation has been completed.”
Now, I thought this was a fairly clear, concise, and thoughtful piece of criticism. My writer friend, after throwing up his hands and sighing loudly in frustration, looked me right in the eyes and said: “Dude, it’s just horror! It’s not like science fiction where these kinds of specific details matter!”
No, I did not kill him, but I did make it clear that they had not only just insulted and trivialized the horror genre, but also (intentionally or not) my life’s work.
I don’t know anyone who would enjoy hearing their life’s work reduced to a triviality, do you?
Now, in my writer friend’s defense, he was dealing with a story that had been giving them problems for a while; so much so that it had been put away and only recently approached again.
I would also add that this writer has not written or read as much horror as he have science fiction and fantasy.
I would also add that he had been having a really, really bad couple of weeks personally, and as a result felt like I was attacking them.
That said (and, yes, he apologized later when he realized the remark — however off-hand — had offended me), his comment encapsulated for me, with disturbingly and depressingly crystal clarity, why it is that a lot of horror stories and novels being published are of an at-best journeyman quality.
It’s because too many writers think, Dude, it’s just horror! Too many writers think that it’s okay to just say “…it’s a supernatural transformation”, and leave it at that, because once you’ve let the demon out, you don’t really need to think about the Hows and Whys and How-Comes; once the Boogeyman is boogying, the details don’t matter, just so long as it’s exciting or suspenseful or horrific.
It is exactly when the Glop is slurping victims left and right that you most need to think about the details. Every story — no matter how believable or outrageous its premise — must follow its own internal logic; it must establish the rules for its own microcosmic universe and then adhere to those rules. Fairly basic stuff, unless you think it isn’t necessary to bother establishing those rules in the first place.
Let me give you an example: the first Jeepers Creepers movie. Throughout the story, all we know about the Creeper is: he’s a demon (and even that much is left for us to infer, rather than directly established). Nowhere in the first film does the writer bother establishing the Creeper’s precise nature; we don’t know where it came from, what it wants, why it wants it, or what, exactly, the Creeper plans to accomplish through its actions. As a result of the Creeper’s nature and powers never being established, the story leaves it wide open for it to behave however it needs to in order to keep the story suspsenseful.
That’s not necessarily a good thing; yes, because neither the audience nor the characters in the film know the Creeper’s precise nature, it is impossible to predict what it will do next, and by default that should have generated more suspense…but it doesn’t quite work. It’s the very unpredictability of the Creeper’s actions that works against the second half of the film, preventing it from reaching the dizzying levels of suspense that mark the first forty minutes; if we, the audience, had been given some vague idea of the Creeper’s nature, had we been given just a few rules, had just a few details been established, then we wouldn’t have felt so much that the writer was simply pulling things out of his ying-yang in order to make the next scene SPOOOOOOOKY.
It’s sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.
Conversely, the reason Jeepers Creepers 2 was a much better-written movie was because the writer took the time to painstakingly establish the background elements lacking in the first film; because we did know the Creeper’s nature, what it wanted, why, and — an old trick that always works — that it was functioning under a time limit, the second film generated and maintained a high level of suspense that was both intense and followed the internal logic set down by the ground rules. No, it ain’t Lawrence of Arabia, but on terms of storytelling, it’s light-years ahead of the first movie.
If you think I’m making a tempest in a teapot here, consider this: Stephen King went back and revised the first four Dark Tower books so that they better followed the internal logic and ground rules that emerged as he wrote the last three novels in the series; he did this because the details are important; he did this because, as a writer, he was not content to simply let gaffes in continuity remain uncorrected.
He did this because he takes his work very seriously, and part of taking it seriously means that you think about the details, you follow your own ground rules, and you (as the late Theodore Sturgeon so eloquently phrased it) ask the next questions: What is the true nature of the beast? Why does this happen? What does he or she want? What brought them here? Etc.
No, you don’t have to offer these answers outright during the course of the story, but you, as the writer, have to know these answers yourself, for if you start your novel, novella, or short story with all the answers already in mind, you’d be surprised at how quickly and clearly your story will follow a logical course of events wherein these answers are shown to the reader through the actions of the characters or the progression of events.
The details are important, folks. They are vital. They are not to be dismissed off-handedly, because it ain’t just horror: it’s a question of careful storytelling, because it’s only through genuine craftsmanship that we can offer readers a much richer and rewarding reading experience than just tossing the details out the window and just being SPOOOOOOOKY.