All About The Thriller Genre

writing thriller

Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.

Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.

The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities. Continue reading “All About The Thriller Genre”

“Good People” Is A Terrible Film

Good People movie

Good People is a 2014 film with a screenplay written by Kelly Masterson, based on the novel by Marcus Sakey. This is not a quality film. That said, the ideological issues have remained wholly untouched by paid reviewers, who focused on the problems within the action thread of the plot. Good People is an excellent example of why we need more feminist film critics, not to mention women in the writers’ rooms. The human-relationship thread of this plot makes for a faux-feminist story, created in a room full of men. Continue reading ““Good People” Is A Terrible Film”

Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.

THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT

I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional. Continue reading “Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques”

Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques

Somersault_movie_poster

Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland. Continue reading “Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques”

Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling

brave movie poster

Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.

A sobering side-story is how Brave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.

Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids. Continue reading “Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling”

I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death

I Kill Giants movie poster

I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.

I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.

FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.

I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.

What is Being-toward-death?

Continue reading “I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death”

What is a fractured fairytale?

Maleficent film poster fractured fairy tale

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch. — A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
Bear in mind that classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:
Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages – even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection – a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience – if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture. — Christina Henry
Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:
  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy
Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for YA and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.
  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective. Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:
  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.
Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency. — Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:
There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications–and changes are always made–they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts. – Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

Joy Story Short Film Storytelling Technique

Joy Story movie poster

Joy Story is the perfect short film to teach kids story structure, focusing on character empathy and self-revelation. This story is also interesting in the way it handles gender.

Story Structure Of Joy Story

WEAKNESS/NEED

This story has a clear main character — the dog. I guess the dog’s name is Joy. Which in the West, at least, codes her as feminine. Interestingly, Joy doesn’t have any clear feminine markers. (I suspect Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks would have given her thick eyelashes and ‘feminine’ shaped eyes.)

As Joy steps onto the fishing boat, she shows caution. Her psychological weakness is that she’s a little scared of being on boats. While this doesn’t directly relate to her character development (the weakness usually does), this makes Joy relatable to viewers.

DESIRE IN JOY STORY

Joy — like most dogs — wants to please her owner. This means guarding the fishing bait worms from the heron.

OPPONENT

An audience is like ducklings — we tend to fall in love with the first character we see. With Joy set up so swiftly and clearly as the main character, the appearance of the heron marks Heron out as opponent. Joy wants to protect the worms. Heron wants to take the worms. Their desires are in direct opposition, making them ‘opponents’.

We do see the heron very early, but it’s easy to miss. The birds fly past in the distance. We’re not supposed to focus on the birds at this point — nor are we supposed to be surprised when a heron turns up. Casual mention of an opponent before the opponent is properly introduced is a good technique, and one much used in murder mysteries.

The camera work helps the audience to regard Heron as the baddie. The camera pans from the feet, sliding up, gradually revealing more as if in a horror film. The low-angle shot of Heron, seen from Joy’s point of view, makes the bird seem powerful and scary. The character design, too, encourages empathy with Joy — while the heron is more naturalistic in proportion, Joy’s head is literally more massive than her entire body. The heron’s eyes look scary. Both characters have ‘humanised eyes’, but the heron’s pupils are very small and instead of white around the pupil, she has yellow. Less human means more scary, to human viewers. Joy has large pupils, with white around the iris so we can tell where she is looking.  In lots of character designs with dogs, dogs are given eyebrows. Joy has an expressive brow, but without actual brow hairs. She does have an unusually human mouth, however, with a full set of human teeth and lips which smile and frown.

On the topic of character design, notice the owner has no eyes at all, hidden beneath his bushy brows and a cap. This is a clear signal that the fisherman owner does not play a big role in the story.

PLAN IN JOY STORY

Joy’s plan is to protect the worms from the heron.

The heron has a counter-plan which is in direct opposition — heron plans to steal the worms from Joy.

BATTLE IN JOY STORY

After a rule of threes battle, with the final ending in a tug of war, the heron departs, having lost. It seems Joy has ‘won’ and the story could be over. Of course, if the story ended there, it would feel incomplete and unsatisfying. That’s because stories aren’t about winning or losing a battle — they’re really about the self-revelation, and that comes next.

SELF-REVELATION IN JOY STORY

First there is a simple revelation (not the self-revelation). The revelation is shown to Joy and to the audience at the same time — another trick writers use to keep empathy with the main character. Revelation: The heron doesn’t just want the worms. She needs the worms, and they’re not for herself. She is not being selfish after all. She’s not simply stealing worms in order to have fun. This is a life and death situation for her chicks, who can’t swallow big fish. They need smaller food or they’ll go hungry (and die).

At this point, the audience sympathy expands to the bird. Heron and Joy remain in opposition, but the heron is no longer the baddie/villain. Another interesting story technique: Because most baddies are male, and most characters without distinct female markers are considered ‘neutral’ (ie. still male), when we see the heron with babies it functions as a reveal. “Oh, it’s a mother!” we think. Suddenly her badness is downgraded.

(Perhaps people who really know birds may tell the difference immediately, but it’s not easy to sex a heron. The only real difference is in size, and when there’s only one heron, it’s even harder.)

This is an interesting subversion of typical gender roles in story, and only works because audiences have been so thoroughly conditioned to consider any character male, unless specifically told otherwise.

Now for the SELF-revelation. This doesn’t happen until the heron delivers the fish in exchange for Joy’s gift of worms. This is the part where the audience also has a self-revelation, which links beautifully back to the moral argument: Small acts of generosity will be returned to you ten-fold. So be generous, and you’ll get what you desire in the end.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN JOY STORY

Joy only ever wanted to please her owner. When the owner turns round and sees she’s somehow managed to ‘catch’ all those fish, he pats her on the head and she has achieved her original goal. Joy and Heron and owner are happy.

 

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline book cover

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the female myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the female myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.) Continue reading “Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline”

Monster House Film Study

monster house

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Brave, of 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE

Continue reading “Monster House Film Study”