Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part V

Enemies at the Door coverWhat, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Quite simply – his or her work must be a page-turner. I don’t mean that it needs to have explosions on every page but it has to keep the reader interested. Whether that be through a driving storyline, taut narrative, beautiful writing, eloquent wordplay, fabulously rendered characters, or a combination thereof – whatever; it can have the most meaningful subtext in history but that’s no use if readers won’t keep turning the pages.

Some exponents of classic literature do this effortlessly. Books I’ve read in virtually one sitting include Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Sallinger, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines, A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh and even Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – a mammoth book by modern standards but so well written and so intriguing that you just keep blazing through it. The same applies to certain genre works. Take the Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Very popular now thanks to the TV series, but the books are so readable – and that’s quite a feat when you see how incredibly long they are.

It would be great if we could bottle what these authors have brought to the written page and try to sell it, but it’s too intangible. Whatever it is, it keeps their readers entranced all the way through – at least, it kept me entranced. We all have to find our own way in that regard. However we do it, we must tell a story that our audience will stick with from the beginning to the end and then yearn for a sequel.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

The worst aspect for writing for a living – I’m guessing that’s what you mean – is the self-discipline it requires. That’s my personal opinion. I don’t have another job, so I have to keep writing all day and every day in order to make a living. But even then I can find it tough. My Dad was astonishing in that regard. All his life as a freelance writer, he worked a solid nine-til-five, Monday to Friday. He was in his office bang on time every morning, and he was only ever late coming out of it if some murderous deadline was proving difficult. Of course he didn’t have the distractions we have today – like Facebook, like our favourite online forums, like 24-hour news channels. But he still got his head down and worked all day like a Spartan, never taking unnecessary breaks. I am far more scatty. I don’t mean that I sit around twiddling my thumbs. I always aim to work a normal day shift, but sometimes, if I’m struggling with something, I go and take the dogs for a walk or kick a football around the garden to try and work things through (yeah, right). To make up for this, I sometimes work in the evenings and at weekends. Other times, if I’ve taken on more work than I should, I have to do this regardless. None of this makes for a good equilibrium, I fear. In fact, there are times when I’ve got the job done and I wonder how I managed it.

Anyway, that’s the worst aspect of the job for me – trying to match my time and energy, trying to keep a healthy schedule, balancing work, recreation and so forth.  I’m sure it’s different for every writer though. Some talk about writer’s block, and while I’ve never suffered that, I do think there are times when you simply get tired. Contrary to the popular view, writing a novel – say100,000 words or more – is an enormous physical undertaking. There are times when you just can’t face that, though it’s always important to remember that things could be worse – you could be digging coal 1000 feet underground, like my grandfathers did (in both their cases having just fought a World War), or you could be having to deal with sick and dying people and their relatives. As things go, there are far more perks to writing for a living than drawbacks.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

The most important lesson I can impart is keep persevering, despite all the brickbats this industry will throw at you. I’ve encountered far too many writers who bruise so easily that I know they’ll never make it. There is nothing to gain from having a tantrum just because someone has said they don’t like your stuff.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but we can all paper rooms in our houses with rejection slips. I once heard, to my disbelief, that Stephen King – even though he was already an established bestselling novelist – had his first nine drafts for The X Files knocked back. Incredible, but at least that shows that if you get rejected, you’re in good company. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that rejection is not just par for the course, but an integral part of the learning curve, because it doesn’t just toughen you up for what is an extremely brutal game, it teaches you where you’re going wrong. I always advise new writers that if an agent, publisher, producer or script-editor has taken the trouble to tell you why he doesn’t like your work, you need to take note of it. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with him, have a look at the points he’s raised and take them on board. Even those who don’t take the trouble to explain can indirectly assist, because if a submission of yours continually gets bounced you must conclude that there’s something wrong with it. Paying attention to that and taking appropriate action could be the difference between getting accepted the next time or being rejected again.

You have to make rejection work for you, or you’re in the wrong business.

I would also recommend that writers network feverishly; get to know other writers and editors in your field, ask them what slots are available and who’s buying, talk to them about their work, talk about your own work – it’s an indirect form of self-promotion, but the sort that isn’t going to get up someone’s nose. With the internet, authors now have a tool that I never had when I was first writing and which generations of writers before us could not even imagine. It allows us to get out there, talk to fellow professionals, advertise ourselves and look for market opportunities without even having to leave our keyboards. Remember that if you don’t wave your own flag, no-one will do it for you. The days of the misanthropic genius being discovered by accident while slaving away alone in some dim, candle-lit garret are long over. There are far too many people competing for too few slots for miracles like that to occur. Get out there into Cyberspace, listen to what’s going on, learn what’s hot and what’s not, and, where appropriate, promote yourself and your work.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

In the crime genre, I would urge readers to look up two British novels from several decades ago. They are Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis and Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter. In some ways both books have dated. They were both published in the 1960s, but they are seminal crime novels representing British hardboiled thriller writing at its best.

Most crime fans will be familiar with Jack’s Return Home, even if they haven’t read the book, because it was made into the highly successful gangland drama, Get Carter, with Michael Caine. The novel tells the tale of a London racketeer returning to his native Scunthorpe to avenge the death of his brother. It’s very much of its time, but is slick, dark and brutal – a classic noir set against a very different backdrop from the norm: the factories and steel mills of Humberside. The movie version of course was set in Newcastle, but that was because director Mike Hodges was trying to sex it up with a better known location.

The superbly titled Hell Is A City is also set in the industrial north, in this case Manchester. It features a world-weary detective determined to bring a notorious villain to justice after he breaks out of jail to do one last job. This one is particularly close to my heart, given that I too was a Manchester cop. Another classic suspenser, also filled with violent action. This also was made into a movie, with Stanley Baker, though it’s not as famous as Get Carter.

Recommendations from outside the genre would include The Saxon Tapestry by Sile Rice, which is a historical adventure/romance following the fortunes of Hereward the Wake after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It contains as much myth and mysticism as historical fact, not to mention some of the bloodiest battle scenes ever written, and a whole lot of hauntingly beautiful prose. A true masterpiece, in some parts heartbreakingly sad.

In terms of horror, I’d suggest The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber. Again it was made into a movie which has now become more famous than the book, but unlike Get Carter, this movie fails to deliver the same punch as the novel. It tells the tale of two New York police detectives and their hunt for a werewolf pack that is decimating the city’s hooker and junkie population. This one should be of as much interest to thriller fans as it is to the horror crowd: it is strong on police procedural and the rough tough relationships within that milieu, and is as gritty and realistic a portrayal of the seedy backstreets in Brooklyn and the Bronx as you’re ever likely to encounter.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part IV

Dark North by Paul FinchCan you tell our readers about your writing process? Do you plan incessantly or freestyle as you go along?

On one hand, I’m an inveterate planner. For example, with a novel or script, I tend to write a detailed chapter-by-chapter (or scene-by-scene) outline before even commencing the actual writing, though I suppose in the professional game it’s incumbent on you to do that anyway. On the other hand, I do have this tendency to jump in, to try and strike while the iron’s hot – though that applies to short stories rather than longer works. And even then, once my first wind is blown, I tend to sit back and take stock, try to work out exactly where the tale is going. Though even then, having worked out the beats on paper, that might not be the final storyline. I think, whatever you’re writing, you’ve got to be aware, throughout, that you might get an even better idea which may send you off at a tangent or may have you backtracking to make changes so that it will fit. But if it’s a better idea it’s a better idea, and it’s got to be worth the extra effort – at least that’s my view.

So I suppose, to answer the question less long-windedly, I plan whenever possible. That always helps you create a balanced structure and a clear narrative. In addition, I blitz it whenever I get one of those wonderful moments of inspiration – no matter how orderly and organised you like to be, I don’t think you can afford to ignore those moments (‘the divine breath’ as my dad used to call them). But overall I keep everything pretty loose until the final draft. And I don’t think that’s a particularly radical approach.

Do you approach short stories in a different way to longer fiction?

I think I’ve partly answered this in the question before but maybe there’s a bit more I can add. First off, writing is writing, and I don’t think the approach varies too much overall. At least it doesn’t in my case. However, there are some noticeable differences.

The general consensus seems to be that the short story is more about the short, sharp shock, even if it’s not necessarily a thriller or horror story. O’Henry, for example, one of the world’s greatest short story writers, delivered a gut-punch with every one of his short tales, even those that were essentially comedies. But that almost makes it sound as if there’s no more to short stories than the sting in the tale and I don’t think that’s true. Roald Dahl’s classic Lamb To The Slaughter is a masterful piece of short story writing. It’s as funny as it’s horrific and at the same time is an amazing murder mystery. Green Fingers by Charles Birkin is a slow-burning character-study in evil and yet at the same time is much more profound than that. Its central character is a middle-class German woman who stumbles almost blindly into participating in the Holocaust. Birkin was never regarded as having produced works of great depth and yet that story in particular is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read for all kinds of different reasons, not least what it says about ordinary everyday people and their terrible capabilities.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that good short story writing combines all the finer elements of fiction, but crisply, economically and yet with greater intensity. At least that’s what those of us who write them aspire to. The short form is a big discipline; it’s certainly not something you can knock off as a quick earner. My personal approach is to give it a lot of thought beforehand – as much, if possible (though it rarely is) as a book, screenplay or novella – to wring as much out of it as I can, and then, once it’s written, to proof it until the cows come home – though I have to be realistic, and admit that the average writer’s schedule rarely allows for this. At the end of the day, just be aware that in writing short stories, you’re writing for a community of readers who are not just fond of contemporary authors, but of those who are long dead and whose work lives on. It’s tough company in which to shine.

For all that, even more thought and planning needs to go into the longer form, be it a novel, a novella or screenplay – quite simply because you’re working on a much broader canvas, and it’s got to be filled, but filled with good, relevant stuff. The moment a story starts to sag, the audience will notice, and may abandon it. That’s the main risk of the longer form as I see it. You’ve got to stay on top of it all the way through and be ruthless with yourself. You’ve got to ensure that everything you put in adds to the product as a whole. If it doesn’t, it’s got to come out; anything that isn’t entertaining your audience in some way has to come out – even if this means you lose length.

One of the most instructive things I was ever told about writing was while I was a trainee journalist. It sounds simple, it may even sound glib, but I was reporting on some local minor issue and when I asked the editor how much he wanted, he replied: “Give it what it’s worth.” That rules applies universally in writing, as far as I can see – even to the blockbuster novel. If it’s worth 200,000 words, give it 200,000, though you’d better be sure you’re right, because people won’t read it all if it isn’t and that’s a lot of wasted effort on your part.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that, while short stories can’t be undertaken lightly, you need to be on your game – remaining sharp and focussed – for a much longer time if you’re writing something a lot meatier. Again, how do I personally approach this? The same way I do with the short story, though I feel there’s an extra dimension of discipline required with a novel. I don’t like to drag things out ad infinitum, because that way I’d never finish anything. So I always impose a fairly rigorous time-frame on my longer form writing, aiming to finish the first draft of a screenplay within a month and a novel within three months. Okay, sometimes you bust it, but at least that gives you strong motivation. You have to divide that time up sensibly of course – with a novel, making sure you write at least 2,000 words a day – but this is my day-job now, so it’s not quite as onerous as it may sound.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part III

Terror tales of the cotswoldsYour work has spanned the horror, crime and historical fiction genres. Which is your favourite and do you have a different approach for each genre?

I don’t have a real favourite. All three of these genres score equally for me, but purely from a personal perspective each one presents its own unique challenge.

Historical fiction, for example, demands that you be adept at world-building. You can’t assume that every reader will be fully au fait with the time-period you’re writing about, so you need to create a concise picture of the historical era your characters inhabit, especially if it’s something they don’t see very often in the movies. But even if it’s something they do, you want it make it as real for them as possible. Most readers will think they know what the Romans looked like, and will be aware that medieval knights lived in castles. But perhaps they won’t know a lot more than that, and this won’t necessarily serve your purpose. In fact, it may be vital to your narrative that your audience has, or quickly attains, a workable understanding of the period. But by the same token you’ve got to impart this to them in a way that isn’t just info dump; as I say, you’ve got to be concise – you’ve got to weave in into the action so the pace never flags.

With horror it’s different again. The biggest challenge there is creating a sense of fear. Many years ago, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester when a bunch of my stories were given an audio release by K-Tel with a few eminent actors reading. I came out with one quote which I was rather proud of at the time, describing horror as comedy’s “dark twin” – in that it attempts to provoke an emotional response which for much of the average day is quite elusive. In comedy it’s mirth, in horror it’s fear. I’ve never been a big fan of gore for its own sake. To me, for horror to really work it has to be scary, not revolting. And the only way you can achieve that as an author is to sit down and imagine scenarios that you personally find frightening or disturbing, which isn’t always easy in the humdrum lives we tend to lead these days, and then recreate it on the page but at the same time work it into something seamless. Again, and with horror especially, if something is obviously contrived, it just won’t work.

The crime and thriller medium is probably the most grown-up of the three, in that you’re writing in the real world and the here and now, touching on themes that your audience will already be familiar with and, in some cases, may have been affected by. For which reason, you need to handle the material very differently. Okay, it’s only fiction, but it’s possible to cross the line. The way you get around that, at least in my experience, is by telling a compelling story with suspense and mystery at its heart, and utilising strong, believable and sympathetic characters, and with a pacy narrative that just keeps pulling the readers along – in effect creating a fantasy adventure in the midst of gritty urban realism. David Fincher’s movie Se7en, scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, would be a good example of this; a story of unrelieved pain and suffering in the heart of drug-addiction, prostitution and poverty, yet it’s a ripping tale filled with intrigue and excitement. Even though it ends on a truly dismal note, you know you’ve watched an exhilarating thriller.

It’s always difficult of course, using violence and torment as a means to entertain, but this isn’t something we need ashamed of. Human society has done this ever since the days of the campfire story. But if it is cast in an acceptable – maybe even an instructive – context, then you could be onto a real winner. How, for example, do you tell the story of a police investigation into the rape of a little girl without it seeming exploitative and voyeuristic?  John Hopkins had the answer with his 1968 stage-play, This Story Of Yours (which in 1972 was made into an astonishing movie, The Offence, with Sean Connery and Trevor Howard). It’s master-class writing, dealing with a shocking crime and all its appalling consequences in a most grown-up and yet dramatic fashion.

After all that, I’m not sure if I’ve really answered the question here. To summarise, you asked me how I approach these different genres. I suppose it’s mainly the case that I bear all these different modes and motivations in mind when writing in them. I suppose, at the end of the day, certain things will always be the same. Most stories, whatever genre they’re in, are about human beings, the jeopardy they face and their struggles to overcome. They are about people and their relationships. Without any of that, as you know, it simply doesn’t work – no matter what the background happens to be.

Your upcoming novel Stalkers features a character called Mark Heckenburg. Can you talk us through his creation?

Like all heroes, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg has more good points than bad ones, but I thought it important from the beginning that he wasn’t a white knight. I don’t mean by that that he’s of ambiguous morality. I love tough police characters like Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry, who exist in such a state of war with the underworld that they often let their guns do the talking, but that’s really a different era from this one. Heck can mix it if he needs to, of course he can – that’s a prerequisite of urban policing (despite the way the job has tried to reinvent itself in the age of political correctness, it often boils down to a simple question – do you want to be able to protect the victims from the victimisers, or don’t you?) – but that isn’t the whole story with Heck. In actual fact he’s an affable guy, who has sympathy and understanding for those creatures inhabiting the fringes of society, and who believes that a discreet, diplomatic approach can pay off where violence and intimidation won’t, but who at the same time despises the really big fish in the criminal pond and will stop at nothing to defeat them, even if that involves bending the rules to breaking point.

This is where Heck’s flaws start to show, because he’s more obsessive than is good for him. His boss and ex-girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, has a real problem with this aspect of his character. He imposes long hours on himself, working doggedly, often alone, to get results – and this is hugely detrimental to his social life, not to mention his love life.  He is not married – (mainly because he is still in constant proximity to Gemma) – so he has nothing really to go home to, which situation is likely to remain as long as he buries himself in work.

All of this really stems from my observations of detectives in real life. The best one I ever knew, and who I worked with regularly (though I won’t mention his name) always went an extra ten miles to get the job done. He had been totally sucked into the police world at the expense of everything else, and would think nothing of working back-to-back shifts to close cases. He actually was married, but having seen the way he and his wife interacted, I’m not sure that state of affairs would last much longer. She basically never saw him.

This kind of fixation can have other unsavoury side-effect. It creates a ‘grump’ in the cop personality, because though these guys won’t admit it, they are always tired, always on the edge – and as they have no time for anything but work, there is very little in their world for them to look forward to. They also have a firm conviction – or is this an excuse they make to themselves? – that without them, the job will fall apart. There is much of this in Heck too.

But as I say, he is the hero of these stories, so while much of his personality it based on real hard-working detectives I was personally acquainted with, other parts of his character are borrowed freely from hardboiled American crime fiction: he is sharp, witty (verging on a Chandler-esque smartarse) and, if you can get through the rumpled exterior, has a rugged, easy charm that the average person on the street would find attractive.

Another aspect of Heck’s character is his relationship with Gemma Piper, his former lover and full-time boss. These two really are fire and water but deep down there is a very strong bond between them which will nearly always provide the emotional core of the story. I won’t go into too much detail over this as it’s something I want to develop through the books.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part I

Paul FinchPaul Finch, author of fantastic horror, crime and historical novels in addition to numerous screen-writing credits joins us for the first of a five part chat about genre, influences and writing for the page and screen.

When were you inspired to become a writer and who (or what) inspired you to pick up a pen?

There is no question that my late father inspired me to be an author. Brian Finch was a successful television screenwriter for four decades. He covered the entire spectrum from soaps to crime drama, from period pieces to children’s television, from science fiction to comedy and romance. He was the ultimate professional. He could turn his hand to anything and with great aplomb. The high point of his career was probably Goodnight Mr. Tom in 1998 for which he won a BAFTA – that was an adaptation of Michelle Magorion’s famous novel.

Dad’s early life never prepared him for any of this. He grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, a coal-mining town, where the local people, though as good an example of humanity as you could find, had few highfalutin ambitions. Yet my dad had wanted to be a writer since his earliest days. That he achieved this so successfully, with minimal qualifications and no experience to call on – either his own or anyone else’s – is quite remarkable and really should be an inspiration to anybody. I’m sorry if that’s in some ways a boring answer. I have been inspired by other great writers – of  course I have, but growing up with my dad and seeing at close hand how happy he was doing what he did, how much satisfaction he drew from his creativity, and to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his craft are 100% the reasons why I too became a writer.

For those interested, Brian Finch’s own contributions to the crime genre are mainly TV credits but they are plentiful. They include: Softly Softly, Chinese Puzzle, Hunter’s Walk, Public Eye, Shoestring, The Bill, and, on a lighter note, Heartbeat.

You used to be a police officer, was the step into crime writing an easy one or did you find it difficult to detach yourself from what you had learned on the job?

There’s no question that my police experience has helped me enormously in terms of my writing. I know my police procedural pretty well inside-out. It was that, I think, that first got me onto The Bill. I sent them a script on spec – not an episode of the series, but an original screenplay concerning a murder inside a police station. Nothing happened at first, but then, about six months later, I received a phone call from one of the script editors asking me if I’d like to go in and see them. I was very raw in writing terms then, but they were intrigued that I knew the police world and police life so well so when they offered me a shot at the show, I jumped at it. I should add that it was several years before I actually made it through the system onto the TV screen. I might have known my police stuff, but way back then I didn’t know much about writing and had to learn it the hard way.

However, my experience as a police officer gave me an excellent grounding in regard to modern law and order issues and I’ve been able to utilise it many times on the written page.

Does having ‘insider knowledge’ as it were make research for crime writing redundant or do you still have to put the hours in?

No, I still have to put the hours in. I finished in the police some time ago, and my knowledge could easily become outdated if I didn’t keep on refreshing it. Police protocols and procedures change all the time. The law itself changes. When I started as a copper the Police and Criminal Evidence Act hadn’t even been introduced and that made phenomenal changes across the board in terms of methods and processes. So I have to try and stay on the ball. In addition, there was never a time when I knew everything anyway. Law enforcement is a vast arena in which to be employed – there are so many different aspects to it and it’s rare that you can experience and become familiar with all of them.

I have to do my research like everyone else. Though I still have lots of friends and contacts in the police, so I suppose that helps.

Which crime writers do you currently admire in the genre?

There are quite a few. From the States, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard. From the UK, Stuart MacBride, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham. I also love Mo Hayder’s amazing blend of crime and horror.

You’ve written crime for both the screen and the page, which do you prefer?

For me they’re both pretty satisfying but unless you’re writing a screenplay for a major Hollywood studio, you can let rip a lot more in prose than you can in a script.

I don’t mean to say that bigger is always better. Far from it. But when I’m writing a novel, I get a great deal of pleasure from pushing the envelope in a way that I wouldn’t be able to on television. I’m partly talking about sex, violence and profanity here, which inevitably come into it if you’re dealing with gritty crime scenarios. For example, when I was writing for The Bill, it was a pre-watershed TV show, so you had to create material that dealt with modern policing issues but was also family friendly. But in addition to all that, and this would apply whether The Bill was on TV before nine o’clock or after it, there was no point developing anything that would be too complex or expensive to produce. Budgetary constraints didn’t just disappear because you had a great idea. For instance, if your plot required an action sequence, you first had to ponder how expensive it would be to show cars chasing and crashing, how many stunt doubles you would need, how expensive the FX if you were to ask for gunfire, explosions and so forth. You don’t have any of that when you’re writing a novel, which is really very liberating.

At the risk of having given you a rather shallow response, that’s about it really. Otherwise, I get the same kick from writing both forms. If you’ve told a rattling good story, and people are talking about it afterwards and are basically energised and enthused by it, then you’ve done your job as an author, whether they saw it on the screen or read it on the page. Either way, it’s very satisfying.

 DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

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.

 

Can you really scare your reader? (And how to avoid a flimsy manuscript)

The Exorcist ScaryWhen I began writing my first published novel, Playground, I knew the best way to gain any sort of critical success with it would be to provoke a reaction from the reader. A book that doesn’t engage the reader is rarely worth reading; just my opinion of course, but perfectly valid for the sake of this article.

If a book is supposed to be comical, it should make the reader laugh. If the book is a thriller, it should have them on the edge of their seat (pardon the cliché). If it is erotic, the reaction should surely be arousal; fantasy, should induce escapism. This particular ideology of mine was problematic for me as a horror writer because it proposed the following questions:

(a)   Can a person be physically frightened by reading?

(b)  How do you write something that will scare your reader?

I used to think that although books can be creepy, you would have to be short on nerve if a novel actually frightened you. I’d read a lot of Lovecraft, and there was certainly an ominous quality to the work, and Stephen King’s books were darkly entertaining, sometimes even disturbing, but had never read any anything that actually frightened me. I’d read many horror novels by numerous authors, most of them exceptional, and while I was immensely entertained by them, I had never received the feeling it was supposed to evoke: Fear.

This changed a few years back when I read The Exorcist. I’d been extremely frightened having just seen pictures of the film as a child, and when I eventually saw the film in my early twenties, I must admit, I was pretty damn shaken. But when I read the book, that fear was somehow amplified. I’d never encountered anything like it. 90 pages in and not much has happened, and then Regan goes into her mother’s room and says something as simple as “I can’t sleep. My bed keeps shaking,” and I was covered in gooseflesh. I was reading the book alone in the house, and I suddenly needed to piss real bad. And, for the first time since seeing An American Werewolf in London at the age of about 6, I was scared at the prospect of making the walk to the toilet in the dark. I even had a nightmare about the possessed Regan being in my bed when I finished the book and swiftly reached for my rosary!

This, to me, was a marvellous read and the perfect example of how an author can engage completely with the reader. Obviously we all know what happened after William Blatty’s book was released, and I’m pretty sure it was his ingenious way of terrifying his readership that did it.

I believe that the way for a book to be critically and commercially successful, is to provoke a reaction out of the reader, no matter what genre you write. I doubted that I had the originality in me to frighten any of my readers, but I could damn sure try and disturb them. I also read a lot of Jack Ketchum, who if you’re unfamiliar with his work, writes about very real horrors that could happen in your average neighbourhood; rape, torture, murder and so on. It was his unflinching style that disturbed critics and readers alike and made him a well-known name in the horror arena.

The way I saw it, I had to be fearless. I couldn’t worry about what my mother or grandmother might think of a detailed rape scene, or how people might react to racial slurs or graphic details of violence. If the book demanded it, I would provide it, and I would do my best to make the reader see it and feel every disgusting word of it.

A friend of mine used the term shock-jockey to describe someone the other day, and although I can’t remember who he was talking about, he was referring to their approach of saying something lewd in order to provoke a reaction from the public. All publicity is good publicity, that sort of thing. While I wasn’t necessarily trying to be shocking for the novelty of it, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of any fictional topic. I would explore every dark, swampy corner of my imagination. For this reason, Playground features a crack addict being raped and later self-harming, a child molesting policeman impersonator, animal abuse, and much more.

When I was working for a small publishing house a few years back, a woman sent in a manuscript about a group of middle class women that start an agency to murder paedophiles worldwide. I thought the idea was pretty novel and was looking forward to it. And, while the idea was in fact a decent one, the execution was not. The author was timid of using the word ‘Fuck’ and completely appalled at the prospect of, God forbid, actually detailing a horrific scene involving a paedophile – which happened to be the core subject matter of her book. No, the author didn’t want to seem to touch that at all. She was far happier with us knowing that there was simply a paedophile somewhere, and then a woman would be assigned to kill him. No emotional involvement on the reader’s behalf, no edginess to keep a reader gripped, but more importantly, no author-reader engagement. It was a flimsy, cowardly manuscript, and I told the publisher as much.

An author needs to abandon all fear of what people may think of them at the typewriter and do what is best for the story. If they hold back, they do their novel and anyone who buys it a disservice, and more often than not, the reader can tell when they’ve been mollycoddled.

At all times one should strive to write a good, faithful and interesting story that people will want to read. If you have any commercial hope for your book, you should write for your audience as much as yourself.

SAM BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.