Tag Archives: film noir

Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

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Bring on the Sidekick

Which character role is your favorite to create and write about?

The protagonist?

The villain?

The mentor?

I love sidekicks. Something about them just makes me happy when I write. I don’t care if they’re good, evil, or somewhere in between. They are so useful in advancing plots.

They can be lazy creatures or as perennially busy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. They can bumble and stumble, as comic relief. They can be smarter than the hero. (Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.) They can think they’re smarter than the hero. (Think of Baldric and his “cunning plans” in the British TV series BLACKADDER.) They can be as loyal as Marshal Dillon’s deputy Festus. Or they can be shifty and unreliable, like the dognappers hired by Cruella de Ville. And, just as Darth Vader proves to his boss the emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI, they are capable of changing their allegiance in a crisis.

Generally, sidekicks serve stories as the workerbees of the story. They possess skills and knowledge. Others gather intel or solve problems. If they are injured, kidnapped, killed, or incapacitated, the plot stakes go up because things become worse for the beleaguered hero.

The story role of sidekick can work for either the hero or the villain, because even the bad guys (and gals) need minions, too.

As a writer, I favor the sidekicks because I can relax with them and give my imagination free rein. So I like to assign quirks to the sidekick that might not be appropriate for a protagonist. Or make them grumblers, who argue, mutter, and disapprove of whatever the hero is about to do — while still pitching in and helping to make it possible. With that kind of personality, another — albeit mild — level of conflict can be injected into the story.

As a reader, I suppose I like best the sidekicks who are buddies. They have a history with the protagonist that reaches into the backstory. Maybe the characters grew up together. Maybe they forged a bond of friendship through a work crisis or in war’s dangers. But their relationship is stronger than a common cause or an employer/employee situation. They are not equals, but they are firm friends.

In the mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, the manservant Bunter works for Lord Peter Wimsey, but he’s more than a servant, more than an investigative assistant capable of taking photographs or carrying fingerprint powder. He served in the army with Lord Peter during WWI, and he best understands and knows how to cope with Lord Peter’s difficulties with shellshock. Although the two men live in two very different social levels, their bond is strong.

In Dashiell Hammett’s novel, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Al have been friends since boyhood. Paul is a rough-around-the edges political boss, and Al is his trusty right arm. Even when the men’s friendship is threatened, Al goes to heroic lengths to save Paul’s neck.

Now, in the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen, who are your favorite sidekicks? Can you name the ones you’ve found most memorable? Why? What about them has appealed to you most?

Do they play only the sidekick role? Or do you prefer secondary characters who combine roles, such as sidekick and romantic interest or sidekick and confidant?

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Noir Fest!

One of the more positive outcomes of injuring my back is the opportunity to sit still and watch old movies.

Through the month of June, TCM is serving up noir films every Friday night. If you’re a fan, then you know what a treat this is. If you’ve heard of film noir, but haven’t ever acquainted yourself with these pictures, here’s a terrific chance to dive in.

Last Friday’s programming was Dashiell Hammett night and included the first film version of THE MALTESE FALCON. I missed the initial 5-10 minutes, but the “stagey” delivery of dialogue from some of the actors makes me think it had to be very early among the talkies. I’m guessing about 1930 or 1931. The plot makes more sense in terms of the way it’s laid out, compared to the later Bogart version, but of course my heart will always belong to Bogie. TCM also showed the Humphrey Bogart/Mary Astor version later that night–too late, though, for me to stay up for it. (Drat!)

Sandwiched in between the two TMFs were other delightful films: AFTER THE THIN MAN with William Powell and Myrna Loy and my all-time favorite, THE GLASS KEY. Starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, and William Bendix, THE GLASS KEY is violent, quick, edgy, and full of sharp dialogue. Romance criss-crosses beneath the mystery. The taut triangle among the three principal players works well, but the relationship I like better is the deep, long-standing friendship between the characters Paul and Ed. That friendship, and the temporary rift of it, fuels their motivations. Man, it’s a good movie.

The most powerful scene comes very late in the film, in a confrontation between Alan Ladd and William Bendix. Bendix plays the edge between thug and madman perfectly, and when he crosses that line he is scary. Ladd’s character–having barely survived a beating from this man–is afraid, but forcing himself to go through with the encounter. His fear–under the cool, seemingly brave façade–is what makes this scene so intense.

AFTER THE THIN MAN is the second of the famous series centered around married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. I think it’s a bit too comedic and sparkling to really be classified as noir, but I’ll never argue with the chance to watch it. If you’re new to this series, start with the first THIN MAN film and then watch AFTER because their story chronology is tightly linked. The next-to-last, THE THIN MAN GOES HOME, is another charmer. The rest in the series are okay, but lesser efforts. Nick and Nora portray one of the best, most delightful married relationships ever presented on-screen.

The witty dialogue is amazing, especially when it centers around wordplay. My favorite moment is when Nick is pontificating about illiterate spelling, and one of the suspects snaps, “What d’ya mean, illiterate? My mother and father were married before I was born!” Nick pauses long enough for the movie audience to get the joke before he turns to Nora and asks, “Having a good time, dear?”

Priceless!

I haven’t looked at the TCM Web site yet to see what’s on this coming Friday, but I can’t wait.

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