Tag Archives: horror

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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Schlock & Horror!

Over the summer, I’ve been involved in a writing project called SCHLOCK ZONE spearheaded by author Mel Odom. About a half-dozen or more writers have banded together to write individual horror novellas that will be published in e-reader format.

The first story in the group is now live. It’s called STRIPPER POLE AT THE END OF THE WORLD and was written by Eric Beetner.

My entry will be available soon. It’s called AMERICAN SLAYERS, and I’ve put it under the revived pseudonym of Sean Dalton.

For more information, go to http://schlockzone.blogspot.com/p/now-showing.html

Why, you may ask, am I writing horror?

Why, you may cry, am I writing schlocky horror?

My reply is …why not?

I’ve never written horror before. Oh, sure, I’ve crafted some scenes containing horrific elements, but I’ve never before officially entered the genre.

It’s not a favorite area of mine. As a child, I was terrified of spooky things. As a teen, I shuddered away from films like THE EXORCIST (and have yet to see it to this day). As an adult, I forced myself to sit through one–and only one–episode of WALKING DEAD before I declared, “Never again!”

But schlock isn’t serious, and it’s not supposed to be taken seriously. No one made me write about zombies, and our editorial edict was to fill the pages with action.

I can do that. In fact, action scenes are what I love best. Under the pen name Sean Dalton, I spent some time writing three novels a year–action-adventure space opera tales that moved quickly. When you write three books a year for a few years, you learn to be efficient. I would use one month to outline the plot, which left me three months to write 75,000 words for each of those dozen books. There’s not a lot of room in such stories for deep character development or intense–and lengthy–sequels that explore motivation and internal conflict. It’s … keep moving, and hit the mark the first time. The tight deadline meant next-to-no leeway for cutting and polishing later.

Since the Dalton days, I’ve shifted my focus more to fantasy. For a while, I plowed through immense tomes of traditional fantasy peopled by large casts of characters and epic struggles of good versus evil. I wrote one book a year and filled notebooks with world-building details.

But that gets old, too. And so when I heard about the SCHLOCK ZONE project, I thought it would be fun to bring the old approach down from the attic and see if I could still write “Sean-style.”

So I cooked up a couple of characters who hunt and kill demons for bounty. I call them Slayers. I made them ex-Marines and made them patriotic. They feel it’s their personal mission to hold back the onslaught of paranormals who are taking over America.

The protagonist is John Slade. His grandmother owns an antiques shop, and she’s not only taught Slade what she knows about the business but she’s also passed along her sixth sense when it comes to feeling the presence of a demon. Slade’s best friend is Mike Pick–part Sioux and built like a brick wall. Pick hates paranormals, loves to stake vampires, and enjoys spending his spare time tinkering with the old motorcycles that he and his teenage daughter are restoring.

Their nemesis is a by-the-book Internal Paranormal Service (IPS) agent named Annis Rikker. She hounds them constantly for violating federal protection laws on behalf of paranormals and does her best to foul up the jobs they take on.

All Slade and Pick want to do is earn a living doing what they enjoy most: ridding old buildings and houses of demonic infestation. With ectoplasmic disruptors, silver-plated swords (for beheadings), and demon traps made of alloy and martyr’s blood–they’re up for any challenge.

Who knows? I had fun writing the story. In a small way, I made it a parody-homage to my favorite reality television show, AMERICAN PICKERS. I thought, what if I “cross the lines” by combining elements of GHOSTBUSTERS and AMERICAN PICKERS? This is the result.

If people like it, I’m willing to make a series of it. And if this should prove to be the one and only, it was worth the time and trouble because I had a blast. After all, if you can’t have fun writing, why do it?

Each of the SCHLOCK ZONE stories will be going live about every two-three weeks.

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Can Softies Survive Zombie Apocalypse?

Last night, I was quick-watching a few episodes of the AMC zombie show, Walking Dead, in an effort to choose something for my Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy class at the University of Oklahoma. I try to cover a broad spectrum of subgenres in the course, letting students examine various types of stories and then discussing aspects of plotting or story shaping, etc. And although I’m no fan of horror and don’t care for zombies as a matter of personal taste, I intended to spend a class period dealing with this slice of the market.

In my scan, I watched an episode which seemed so-so. One zombie beheading, a brutal fight, some wife abuse, a raving man handcuffed to a pipe like bait while zombies tried to swarm him–not too bad. But the plot had some holes and lacked good character motivation, so I decided to check another episode. I chose the series opener.

The initial hook has a sheriff’s deputy encounter a small girl in her jammies, carrying her teddy bear. The deputy wants to help her, but when the child turns around, it’s revealed that she’s a zombie. He shoots her between the eyes. In slow motion, with blood splatter.

I nearly threw the remote at my set. Then I nearly threw the DVD away. Then I thought the experience over.

Granted, the genre is horror. By definition, horror should shock and horrify its audience. But to what extent? What separates good story from gratuitous violence?

As a writer, I understand exactly where the author of this teleplay was going. We really need to grab viewers by the throat with this show. We’ll set up a sharp contrast between a sweet little blonde girl in her bunny slippers and a shuffling monster. We’ll show her blown away by a man in a uniform, a man that wants to help a little girl and instead has to destroy a monster. Oh, and we’ll make sure we take screen time to demonstrate that she’s a killer and he’s giving her a head tap in self-defense. Gotta keep him sympathetic while we make the audience scream.

I understand TV. I understand story. I understand plot hooks and stingers. I understand visual imagery.

But I think writers need to think about what they’re doing and why. When you’re writing shock to make your readers (or viewers) gasp and scream, how far will you go? And should you go there?

When should cheap entertainment surrender to decency and responsibility?

Some might argue that there’s no longer a line, that writers bear no part in what viewers or readers do after encountering the actions in a story. Others can cry censorship.

I’m not calling for that. I don’t think writers should be strangled, stifled, or banned. However, I do think writers should govern themselves.

Too idealistic? Perhaps I am. Just don’t offer me the defense of, gory shock sells.

Of course it does. It always has. (Just ask the gladiators of ancient Rome.)

But there are alternate ways in which to supply shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Psycho, was plenty horrifying but it didn’t supply a visual of every knife wound–complete with stabbing entry crunch and sucking blade exit.

Before the 1980s, there were certain taboos–lines, if you will, that most writers didn’t cross. One of those was that a writer didn’t harm a child character directly in a scene through  violence. Stephen King was among the authors who broke that taboo. I’ve read that he was uneasy about killing the little boy in Pet Sematary and that he was uncertain whether he could get the novel published or that people would even read it. But he did and they did, and the broken taboo was stepped on and kicked and mangled by enough writers subsequently that it hasn’t been put together again.

Today, I can’t think of any writing taboos still standing. Writers are lobbing any topic, any character action, any degree of violence that they please at their readers, and readers seem to eat it up. Some, like Dennis LeHane and Andrew Vachss, do so for a cause. They say they’re trying to make people understand the depravity of child predators. Reputedly they hope that if the public learns about this type of horrific crime, public outcry will demand something be done about it.

But does public outcry happen?

Look at how desensitized we’ve become. Entertainment, in an effort to keep topping itself, runs farther and farther down a road that’s very hard to return from.

I have a friend who stopped watching NCIS at the close of its first season because Kate was shot in the head. In slow motion. With blood splatter. My friend has worked hard to KEEP her sensitivity. Good for her. I can’t imagine what she’d have to say about a deputy plugging a little girl between the eyes in our living rooms, just so we can laugh and cheer.

This morning, when I mentioned my disgust about the child scene to another friend, his reaction was an enthusiastic, “Isn’t that great? She’s a zombie!”

Instead, I’m thinking about teenage boys being shot on the streets of Florida and fathers striking their small boys with axes before setting fire to them. The news hands us one brutal crime against children after another in a reality seemingly gone mad.

As a novelist, I’m no wuss when it comes to violently wiping out my characters, but I don’t intend to contribute to desensitizing a mass audience just to gain cheap thrills.

I was called a softie this morning. Jokes were made about how I wouldn’t survive a “real” zombie attack.

That’s not the point, is it?

What do you think?

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