An introduction to screenwriting: suspension of belief

Why do so many horror (and fantasy & science fiction) films play fast and loose with common sense?

Stone Cold Steve AustinYou’re familar with the scene; you’ve seen it time and again, ever since you were a kid sneaking a late-night scary movie on TV after your parents had gone to bed. The ingredients: attractive scantily clad girl-woman; old house in the woods at the dead of night; raging thunderstorm; bolt of lightning that fries the fuses; trembling torchlight exploration; a coughing sound a bit like a chainsaw pull-start coming from the basement…

Okay, so what happens next? Does she: (a) grab some clothes and get the HELL out of there, or (b) tiptoe to the basement door, open it, call “Is anybody there?” and follow the dim torch-beam down the stairs, one small step at a time, to her almost certain bloody demise?

See, that’s the problem, right there in a nutshell. What she does is the opposite of what you’d do, what anyone in their right mind would do, especially if scantily clad. The writing flies in the face of all logic. Even Stone Cold Steve Austin would make Olympic time hightailing it out of there because it’s doubtful that who or whatever made that noise is someone nice with your best interests at heart. At this point the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered in anyone over the age of, say, 14 – the very people for whom you’d be forgiven for thinking horror films are actually made. And once that suspension is shattered, it’s nigh-on impossible to build it back up again.

Many ‘fantastic’ genre films (horror and its cousins fantasy and science fiction) fail to suspend viewers’ disbelief at crucial junctures because of a propensity to formulaic plotting and over-familiar tropes. They habitually display cavalier attitudes to situational credibility and motivational integrity. Horror screenwriting almost by definition issues a licence to play fast and loose with the rules of logic, but this has led to a basic disregard for those rules and, by extension, for viewers. Audiences appreciate careful crafting of a solid three-dimensional universe, populated with believable characters whose actions are driven by their personalities and traits, much more than crude plot necessity to deliver scantily clad Girl A into the bloodstained bludgeoning hands of the Butcher in the Basement.

Fantasy and SF hold an advantage over horror; because they are made for younger audiences they are more easily forgiven for operating on plot logic that poses no problems for the average 14 year-old.

Indeed, fantasy comes with its own inbuilt get-out-of-jail-free card: magic. Once you can invoke magic you can use it to get out of any plot situation, no matter how impossible. This is also known as cheating. It’s the equivalent of the clause in a contract that reserves the right to amend it in any way at any time – so whether the document is one page long or a hundred, that’s the only clause that matters. Why slog to invent an ingenious solution when you can simply invoke the magic clause? And yes, sacred cow The Lord of the Rings, I am looking at you.

From its early days SF too has humped its own anti-logic cross. Frederik Pohl wrote “When print science fiction is translated into film science fiction the subtle parts are left out.” The media coined a pejorative term for these commercial mutations, which unfortunately has become the default for all science fiction: ‘sci-fi’. Harlan Ellison, SF’s most strident voice, summarised the distinction: “The public image of what is, and what ain’t, science fiction film – an image as twisted as one of Tod Browning’s Freaks – is the result of decades of paralogia, arrogant stupidity, conscious flummery, and amateurism that have comprised the universal curriculum of milieu that passes for filmic education for a gullible audience. If it goes bangity-bang in space; if it throbs and screams and breaks out of its shell with slimy malevolence; if it seeks to enslave your body, your mind, your gonads or your planet; if it looks cuddly and beeps a lot, it’s ‘sci-fi’. We pronounce that: skiffy. And if you love fantasy, you’ll love skiffy. And skiffy is to science fiction as Attila was to good table manners.” Skiffy is what happens when you remove the science and allow the fantastic free rein.

Most 14 year-olds will forgive bad science, muddled reasoning, absurd plot developments, ridiculous decisions and 5% solutions as long as things explode loudly, ugly creatures slice each other up in dank caves and scantily clad girls-women look great and scream loudly as they meet their unmaker. Horror audiences should, in theory, reject such clumsy, unsubtle machinations, yet they keep coming back for more despite films digging wider and deeper logic graves from which their characters have no chance of escape. In horror narratives the dangers to protagonists from butchers, monsters and psychos can be chickenfeed compared to those posed by clunky, cringe-worthy plotting.

So if this unholy state of affairs has always existed, what factors are making it worse today? I’ll set the monsters’ ball rolling with a few thoughts, I’m sure you can add more of your own.

Hollywood-led dilution of adult material in favour of a wider appeal to younger audiences

In chasing the extra box-office bucks of the tween generation, studios have alienated those older folks discerning enough to remember and value multi-layered plots, complex characters and narratives that go beyond the superficial to supply subtext, symbolism and thematic depth.

Filmmaking-by-numbers instant production processes

The screenplay is the single most important element of a film but in reality it is often the least developed one, sacrificed at the altar of haemorrhaging production dollars. The producers’ meter is ticking from the moment they commission or purchase the script, so they want to make the film yesterday whether the script is ready or not. And because they rarely cough up development dough, it’s likely to be half-baked at best.

The writer’s need to eat meets the industry’s need to turn a profit

Screenwriters almost never walk into gigs by creating an amazing original work that a producer just has to make with its aesthetic integrity intact. Rather, they’re awarded to whomever might sell the most sausages for producers and investors on the other side of the mincing machine. Commercial considerations often mean that horror scripts are placed in the hands of writers with little understanding of the genre. How can they know what works and what doesn’t if they have no feeling for how the codes and conventions of the genre have evolved, nor how those codes can be extended, or better still, subverted? They’d be well advised to concentrate on building a fantastic universe with its own tight-knit set of rules, as considered as a classy crime thriller. When time is money though, where is their incentive to do better work and take longer over it if the damn flick is going to be turned around double-quick regardless?

What the hell is going on?

Closely linked with the previous point is the ever-growing need for writers to explain exactly what is happening in excruciating detail, or avoid explaining anything because doing so would only give rise to awkward questions. Some auteurs like David Lynch have explored the abstract while steadfastly refusing to explain it, but they tend to have a deep inner understanding of their metaphysical territory. How can Lynch give a meaningful account of why a suited dwarf is speaking in reverse in a room with monochrome zigzag patterned flooring and red velvet curtains? We get it on an instinctual level, but struggle to put it into words. Some writers employ sixth-form surrealism and refrain from attempting narrative cohesion, so the result is beyond comprehension and we’re left not knowing or caring what happens or why. On the flipside, and equally as bad, others over-elaborate by hammering us into the ground with the bleedin’ obvious; a non-aficionado’s desire to explain the inexplicable, thus rendering it ludicrous or just plain cardboard.

Technological advances and social changes

The late, great Dan O’Bannon – creator of Alien; writer, star and de facto co-director of Dark Star; director of Return of the Living Dead – said that when technology is capable of putting anything on the screen, the first casualty is every other aspect of the film. The most serious one is the script. The scariest things are not guts splattered across the screen, but the unseen eviscerations that happen just off it. The spectator’s subconscious mind delivers horror punch-lines far more effectively than 3D CGI can. Directors like Hitchcock knew this very well; indeed, they had to supply most of their shocks through suggestion as the censorship policies of their era did not accommodate on-screen atrocities. And a very good thing that was, too. Modern writers and directors would do well to study and recreate the genuine atmospheric dread of yesteryear instead of decorating apartments with slimy entrails and thinking their job is done.

Tired tropes and contemptuous caricatures

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; familiarity breeds contempt. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, toxic monsters – anything that transforms or somehow cheats death – mostly obey predictable and unsatisfying formulae, and their very presence is becoming a turn-off. On the rare occasions a wunderkind comes along and breathes new death into them, there’s a surge of hope that this may herald a quality watershed – but then the next batch arrives and normal service is resumed. Trying to update the rules is hard but rewarding when you do it right, and far better than slavishly aping them. Just make sure that you don’t try something real stoopid like making vampires able to walk in daylight, and glow in the sun. Oh, er, hang on… (I can forgive Blade for the former, but not Tw*l*ght.)

That’ll do for now. There are plenty more reasons of course, so throw in a few of your own. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a short list of films that in my honest opinion create a good solid force-field of suspension of disbelief around themselves; plus somewhere the force-field is more like a moth-eaten nightdress (not unlike the one our attractive girl-woman is nearly wearing) with holes that leak belief by the moment; and finally a few that are so stylised, mad-in-a-good-way, or both, that suspension of disbelief never becomes an issue – you’re just happy to be along for the ride.

Force-field intact: Pan’s Labyrinth / The Exorcist / Texas Chainsaw Massacre (you know which one) / Dawn of the Dead (ditto) / Alien / The Shining / Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer / The Vanishing / Halloween / An American Werewolf in London / Psycho

Holy moth-eaten nightdress Batman: The Human Centipede / Tw*l*ght / What Lies Beneath / Prince of Darkness / Planet of the Apes re-imagining (a personal nadir; if only imagination had played any part) / Halloween II / Exorcist II: the Heretic / An American Werewolf in Paris

Divine madness: The Evil Dead / Phantasm / Suspiria / Videodrome / Troll Hunter / Eraserhead / Possession / Audition / Carnival Of Souls

JOHN COSTELLO

John CostelloJohn Costello is a freelance author, screenwriter, script analyst, lecturer and electronic musician. His sole author credits include Writing A Screenplay (2002, last ed. 2006), David Cronenberg (2000) and Science Fiction Films (2004), all published by Pocket Essentials.