Tag Archives: thrillers

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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The Implausibility Factor

Another way–besides gotchas and inconsistent characterization–an unwary writer can break a reader’s suspension of disbelief is through plot events that are simply unbelievable.

Sometimes I deal with students that defend their highly improbable storyline by saying, “But it really happened!”

While real-life events or news stories can spark ideas in a writer’s mind, that doesn’t mean you can chronicle them exactly as they occurred.

The old adage of truth being stranger than fiction means that fiction is a conservative art medium. It brings more order and organization and purpose to a dramatized event than a real event will have. That’s because it must fit into a story. It must serve to advance a plot that’s focused on the protagonist’s goal and is actually helping move the protagonist toward a climax and resolution.

Real life doesn’t necessarily work that way. And therefore real events have to be reshaped and reconfigured in order to be dramatized.

Sometimes, a writer will be too heavily influenced by the spate of what thriller writer David Morrell calls “idiot plots” that have dominated major motion pictures in Hollywood since the 1980s. While action-packed, fast-paced, stunt-laden movies can be exciting to watch, a novelist trying to emulate them can push a high-concept storyline into absurdity.

Granted, no one expects a James Bond film, for example, to be realistic, much less offer character depth or development. Audiences go to Bond flicks expecting a high degree of implausibility. As long as the people running the Bond franchise can keep topping themselves, the exotic locales, hot babes, and wild stunts will continue to make audiences say, “Wow.”

However, an over-the-top movie that spits rapid-fire visual eye-candy at its audience should not be a template for a novelist trying to plot a story. In prose, we have our words, not cinematography or CGI. We can aim for a fast-paced story, of course, but it will never move as rapidly as a film. Therefore, our readers have more time to think, Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a hunch-backed dwarf following the heroine down that Paris street? Where did he go? Why did he stop tracking her? Wasn’t there a reason for that? If he’s not going to show up again, why was he mentioned in the first place? Also, movies keep going so even if someone in the cinema thinks, hold on, an action stunt or locale change onscreen will distract or obscure audience doubt. However, in a book a dubious reader can stop and flip back a few pages to check some authorial misstep.

Oops.

It takes a lot more effort and disgust for an audience to walk out of a film than it does for a disgruntled reader to toss a story aside.

Staying plausible involves keeping up with your hooks, threats, plants, questions, and details. Playing fair with readers means you must not mention or include or feature anything that isn’t in the story for a valid dramatic reason.

Declaring, “Oh, I just thought I’d describe that girl in the clown costume, holding a red parasol while trying to flag a taxi because I wanted some vivid imagery. She doesn’t have any bearing on what’s happening between Gertrude and her mother,” is akin to announcing you plan to go sky-diving for the first time at noon but don’t expect your family to take any notice of it because you’ll be home in time for dinner.

Implausibility can also occur when you fail to plot through your protagonist’s sequels. In other words, if you simply push your character from one event or scene to the next as you would check off items on your errands list, the character’s actions resemble those of a contrived puppet.

Instead, follow up each scene with its immediate sequel–or the aftermath where your protagonist processes what just went wrong, reacts to it, analyzes it, weighs options for what to do next, and chooses a new course of action.

Inexperienced writers can be impatient with sequels, but these dramatic building blocks make an enormous difference in your story’s logic and your protagonist’s motivations. Sequels are key components to a believable plot no matter whether it’s a family drama set in a Virginia suburb or a military thriller set in the Adriatic Sea.

And, finally, your story can become implausible if you neglect the consequences of your characters’ actions. Your story people aren’t confronting each other, arguing with each other, betraying each other, or pursuing each other without result. Every character action worth depicting in a scene should create a later effect on someone or something in the story. If you overlook this, your plot becomes a random montage of character actions that lack an evident purpose and don’t seem to connect.

Such errors and omissions result in readers pushing the story away in disbelief, no longer willing to pretend with you.

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Plot Extinction

Since the days of antiquity, since before the alphabet and written literature, story plots in western civilization have been linear in design.

Meaning, they have a beginning, a middle, and an ending whereby the hero struggles against forces of antagonism, nearly fails, but prevails through sacrifice and heroism. The hero is changed by the experience, and as a result, the closing lines of the story point to this individual living a better life in future.

This basic template is founded on the structure of mythological tales. We respond to it as instinctively as we do anything that starts with “Once upon a time …”

However, in the last decade the linear plot has fallen out of fashion. Editors sometimes reject it in favor of a nonlinear storyline. Writers are told that readers are now web-thinkers (and we ain’t talking spiders).

A while back, I lost what would have been a very lucrative book deal because I was offering a story that was “too linear.” At first, I tried to make rocket science out of this new plotting concept. Then I figured out that all editors want are multiple viewpoints, cross-cutting, and lots of flashbacks mixed with a blistering-fast pace.

Not so revolutionary, after all. Thriller writers have been employing strategic viewpoint shifts and cross-cutting between subplots for years.

However, the trendy push is to employ these web-like plots to all genres, especially those for young readers. So far, fine.

But what I’ve been noticing lately is a more disturbing result of this trend–in plots that are increasingly frenetic and chaotic. They’re fast. They jump about with forward progress counter-balanced with flashbacks. They feature a lot of characters, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to tell who exactly is the protagonist. At their best, they’re lively, engaging, intriguing, and complex. At their worst–and I’m seeing more and more of the worst–they’re impossible to follow, confusing, and boring.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a novel–the latest in a long-running and fairly successful series. In this author’s books, the characters and their backstories are emphasized over the plots, which are simple and small in scope. That’s perfectly fine. Sometimes I enjoy a book that’s more character-driven. But this particular novel had no plot. It featured instead a situation: a reunion of characters. The characters could barely speak to each other without us flowing into reverse for long flashbacks culled from past novels. The novel was short, but it took me forever to finish it.

Normally I would toss it aside with a shrug, chalking it up to a writer temporarily out of ideas who had to meet a contractual deadline.

Except that recently I read another novel that rambled around. It was a genre book, not mainstream at all. It should have had a plot. But it couldn’t seem to get going. Reading it was like trying to drive with a clutch for the first time. Jerky starts. Lurching stops. Stalled.

Normally I would say, new writer lacking in experience. But it wasn’t. This author has written many novels.

Television is on a similar trajectory, perhaps even more so than novels. Once upon a time, a TV show was episodic, meaning each weekly episode served a complete story. It had a beginning, middle, and end. The problem was resolved; the star saved the day; we knew that on the following week there would be a new story problem and new guest stars to see.

Of course, TV–in a rather odd development–now moves along a novel-type structure with each weekly segment of the show contributing to a continuing storyline. The entire season comprises the story arc. If you miss an episode of these dramas–let’s call it instead a weekly chapter–you’re in trouble. Still, that’s what DVDs are for. You can settle down with your popcorn in your living room and watch the entire season in one weekend marathon.

But even TV’s grip on plot is slipping more and more as it attempts to juggle the novel structure of linked weekly installments with the trend of web-like plots.

In September 2013, I sat down in excited anticipation to watch the season opener of PERSON OF INTEREST. Normally this is a well-written, intriguing show. The flashbacks feeding backstory on various characters takes some getting used to, but generally it goes well.

Not the season opener. I couldn’t follow it. Was I experiencing the onset of senile dementia? Or was I trying to watch a mish-mash of too much cross-cutting and references to past events from prior seasons? It’s TV. I shouldn’t have to work that hard to watch an episode. I shouldn’t have to have watched every second of multiple seasons in order to follow the plot. Granted, if I had done so I might have gotten all the nuances written into the script, but I should be able to click on, understand the gist of the story, and reach the closing credits without saying, “Huh?”

Okay, it’s supposed to be intelligent and complex. But this season has been a mix of shows that made sense and were very satisfying and shows that made me say, “Huh?”

I couldn’t help but compare it to another popular program, BURN NOTICE. Splashy, colorful, action-driven. A lot of plots and subplots woven through the seasons. However, I could miss half of a season, click on and pick up easily. The episodes made sense, even if I didn’t recognize a new character that had been on for several weeks during my absence.

Over this weekend, I came across a Dr. Who episode. It began with a great hook. The sets and costumes were a marvelous steampunk montage. Alien lizard girls in Victorian dresses–YES! The modern Dr. Who shows have better budgets, better set design, and better makeup departments than the low-budget versions of the past. Woo-hoo!I thought. Let’s watch this!

What I saw began well, shoved great concepts at me, and failed to deliver. The script hopped here and there among the characters, tried to handle more characters and subplots than the writer evidently could manage, cross-cut with all the reckless abandon of a drunken driver veering down a highway, and grew increasingly chaotic, fast-paced, and pointless. By the finish, I’d moved on from “Huh?” to “Who cares?”

Now, if someone wanted to defend this program, he might mutter to me about my having seen only the conclusion of that particular plot segment. Doesn’t matter. I should still be able to follow the story.

I’ll contrast it with another modern Dr. Who episode that I saw a couple of years ago. Different doctor as the star. It, too, was the concluding episode of a plot segment. The setting was Venice and some girls’ school where all the young maidens were vampires. Evil aliens were about to conquer Earth. (The Whosians out there will probably recognize this one.) In three minutes–I was up to speed. I could follow the story, and I didn’t have to strain to do it. The script made sense. It clearly wrapped up all the threads in the storyline. It served a satisfying conclusion with the little trademark twist of the program. Terrific and fun.

So what’s my point besides a rant about how plotting is falling into the decay of anarchy?

Plotting is falling victim to anarchy.

It doesn’t have to, of course. But writers have to stand fast against sloppy plotting, weak storylines, and the mistaken notion that chaos equals complexity, that speedy pace alone guarantees reader/viewer involvement, and that giving all the characters equal attention delivers satisfaction.

Methods of storytelling evolve with changing times. But the linear plot works well, if you’ll let it. Complexity is desirable, if we don’t unleash it like kudzu and let it smother the forward progress of the story.

Balance and control. Managing the story so that it unfolds quickly and unpredictably, intriguing our audience while holding them enthralled. That’s a writer’s job. That’s a writer’s responsibility. Trends come and go, but effective story design has to be preserved … and delivered to our readers.

Maybe I’m just an alarmist, paranoid enough to see the fall of civilization based on a few badly written books and teleplays. And maybe I’m an individual who grew up reading every novel I could get my hands on, watching television written by people trained in the old studio systems to deliver solid plots week after week. I’m not satisfied with the drivel of reality shows and book plots that crumble like cupcakes baked without eggs. I want more than that, and so should you.

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