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Acknowledging the Darkness. Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ and our fascination with what goes wrong inside men’s heads.

By Levi Lee

“As I had so many times before, I put myself in the mind of a killer.”

-John Doulgas, Journey Into Darkness

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I first read John Douglas’s “Journey Into Darkness” when I was seventeen years old. I picked it up in the Waldenbooks in Crossroads Mall while on break from my job as the shift manager of the candy store on the other side of the mall. It was an easy job. By that time, around 2002, Crossroads was already economically and socially rotting from the inside out. Most of the store spaces were now vacant, and at around seven each evening the mall became the prowling grounds of local youths, bored and growing up on the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder, just looking for something to do every night. Often there were fights, just a few weeks after I left that job a fifteen-year-old boy was shot to death by the off-duty cop who worked security in his off hours after the boy had pulled a gun in the middle of a fistfight and started firing wildly into the crowd.

On nights there wasn’t such excitement though, I got to spend most of my time sitting behind the counter, reading. Most of the people in and out of the store were just killing time, rather than actually making any purchases. The scant ones that were made were small and didn’t require much of my time to ring up and get them on their way. The place didn’t call for much upkeep. So I read. It was on a night like this that I picked up “Journey Into Darkness” on one of my breaks. I took it back to the store and started reading.

As anyone who knows me at all knows I’m a lover of genre fiction, and horror specifically, but this was my first foray into true crime. I remember reading that book every free moment I had over the next two days, whatever time I could eek out between school and work. I didn’t put it down until I was done. It horrified and disgusted me but I could not put it down. It led me to seek out Douglas’s other works, “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” “Obsession: The FBI’s Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back,” and “The Anatomy of Motive: The FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Explores the Key to Understanding and Catching Violent Criminals.” The man is a fan of subtitles. What can I say? Voluminous titles aside though, these books all enthralled me, and I respected immensely the commitment of a man so willing to delve into the criminal mind. Until my second year of college at the University of Oklahoma, I pursued a degree in Sociology: Criminology due almost solely to this author’s influence, and dreamed of being chosen to work in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. I had, as many of us do, a fascination with the dark and a need to try and understand and make sense of it.

In the first chapter of “Journey Into Darkness,” after the quote that I mentioned at the top of the article, Douglas gives the reader the account of the murder of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Collins on the night of July 11,1985, told from the first person perspective. He literally places you in the mind of the killer. You, the reader, thinking those thoughts and doing those horrible things. It’s awful, and it will make a great many of you cringe to read, but it is gripping and telling and emotive in ways that are both uncomfortable and undeniably fascinating. Netflix’s new binge-a-riffic offering for October is “Mindhunter,” and it’s based on the experiences recounted in Douglas’s first and most famous offering of the same name.

The opening salvo of “Mindhunter” introduces us to FBI Agent Holden Ford, Douglas’s loosely based counterpart in the series, as he shows up to a hostage negotiation that has at best gone bad, and at worst is seemingly about to end up with bodies on the ground. A man is holding a woman at gunpoint at the entrance to a warehouse, demanding to see his wife and asking repeatedly if people can “see him.” Ford does his dead level best to calm and communicate with the man, buying time in as empathetic a way as he possibly can. The negotiation does not end particularly well, but from this one scene, we come away seeing Holden as a character who is not only deeply analytical but also capable of empathizing with people whose personalities and behaviors run the gamut of the emotional spectrum. It’s this empathy and need to understand that pushes him into the mechanism that drives the overall plot of the show, the detailed interviewing, categorizing, and classifying of violent multiple offenders all over the United States in an effort to develop a means to profile and catch future killers. In short, he’s going to interview and try to understand serial killers, which was a term that at the time, did not even exist and was purportedly invented by one of his counterparts in the Behavioral Science Unit.

The pilot is directed, as are several of the subsequent episodes by David Fincher, he of “Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Gone Girl,” and “Zodiac” fame. It feels distinctly Fincher throughout. The color palette is cool and clinical for the most part, except when we move into the realms of the killers where things take on a sickly feeling. Throughout those environs, the prisons and institutions, you can feel the grit. It’s not overt, just enough to set you on edge, giving you the feeling of what it might be like to step into the fringes of a killers psyche.

The characters are well drawn, and while you can find some of your typical types and tropes, those types and tropes are couched in truth. The jaded old-timer, the experimental wild-card rookie, and the polite psycho who’s done horrible things that you can’t square with their quiet and polished social demeanor are on display here, but there is a lot more beneath the surface as you watch the show and allow the characters to breathe. They are complicated people that you will at times like, dislike and feel outright contempt for, just like actual human beings. This is fitting, given that some of the insights provided by Douglas’s works are that while the actions perpetrated by serial and spree killers are beyond the pale for most of us, they do display their own interior logic and interpretation of human feeling and emotion, and to be able to catch these people we have to understand how they think. As Agent Tench, one of the other main characters of the series puts it, “How do we get ahead of crazy, if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” “Mindhunter” attempts to show us how we find killers when motive is elusive and the personal price that is paid for that knowledge.

As a society, we have a fascination with crime in general, and murder in particular. We seek it out in our books, television, movies, and video games. It’s everywhere. Why do we have this fascination? Murder is fascinating to think about in the abstract, when it’s happened to someone else, somewhere else. Even when reading true crime stories that we know are based on fact, we are reading them in a book, and subliminally it makes us feel safe to have the distance of a book, a movie, a tv show, to experience the darkness through. Most of us have no scruples taking a photograph of others, but when asked to stand in front of the camera and be a part of a vulnerable experience we become shuttershy. Using the same kind of analogy some of us are able to be a part of an event such as a wedding or a party when we are the photographer, having the lens between us and the experience gives the comfort of distance. Murder can happen to someone else, somewhere else…just not to me, and not here, even though we all know deep down that, in fact, that’s just not true.

That darkness does exist, out there in the world, and inside us, but how do we acknowledge it and cope with it without letting it become a fear which then can affect or downright control us? We need a release valve, and that is what things like “Mindhunter” do for us. In a time of increasing violence in our country, where we know intrinsically that the darkness can reach out and touch us with no notice and little effort, these fascinations and our reflections of them in pop culture allow us to acknowledge and cope with the darkness, without letting it get so big that it seeps into and destroys our daily lives. Agent Ford’s character in “Mindhunter” has to contend throughout the series with attacks on the “unsavory” nature of his work, but he realizes that regardless the work is necessary, and so is fiction like this.

 

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Conventions and Workshops

Happy new year all! Here’s a list of every upcoming interesting-looking writing/book conference and workshop in the area I could find. Definitely mark your calendars for the one in OKC.

 

And here are some major events around the country:

 

 

If you go to an event this year, let us know how it was and whether it was helpful. I’ll be sure to post about any I can get out to.

Brittany

Subjects & Themes: Internal Conflict

In my last post, I started talking about some of the kinds of conflict that frequently pop up in horror or in stories with horror themes, and I focused on the kind I’m calling external conflict (man vs. man): violence against a person and violence or oppression against a group of people. I also lumped man vs. machine in, since the fear of technology closely relates to the fear of science and to the fear of the other.

Now I’m going to talk about another kind of conflict: the Internal (man vs. self), or the struggles of an individual with his or her own psyche, soul, mind, sanity, emotions, conscience, and body.

We perceive everything in our lives through our senses. Losing or being unable to trust even one of them is deeply terrifying. A common way to take advantage of this is to have a character be unable to see something that the audience knows is there, by obscuring the POV character’s vision or hearing, or by having a child or an animal perceive the thing – animals can sense stuff we can’t, right? Of course they can see that ghost. The Bad Thing could also be reflected in a mirror, or visible everywhere except in a mirror.

Conversely, the character might perceive things that aren’t there, that other people can’t sense, or that are actually different from how the character’s perceiving them (Black Mirror, A Stir of Echoes, Donnie DarkoThe Machinist).

On the screen, vision and hearing are used the most, because the audience can only directly interact with the story via those two senses. We passively watch movies and TV shows. We can see the air frosting over and the character shivering, but we can’t feel the cold the way we can hear a creepy sound or see the character’s hallucination, so it doesn’t affect us the same way. On the page there’s more freedom—you can write about the taste of a werewolf’s kill, or what a vampire’s bathroom smells like. (They would pee blood, right?) Your readers are creating it all from scratch, so they will fill in the sensory details themselves.

What if, instead of losing our ability or faith in our senses, we had more senses than the usual? What if we could read thoughts, flip cars, see the future, talk mind to mind? I think this kind of story is so common for two reasons: 1) a universal desire for stronger connections to and better communication with other people, and 2) because it would be awesome.

Psychic phenomena ties in with the supernatural, but it’s often viewed through a (pseudo)scientific lens as being a body/mind-based talent rather than resulting from a paranormal outside influence. There are malevolent forces that can use this power for evil, of course, or who can force the powerful down a bad road, by persuasion, possession, or mind control (The Bone Clocks, Jessica Jones, Carrion Comfort). The idea of loss of trust in our mind taps into an even deeper fear than the loss of trust in our physical senses, because our mind is our essential self.

Stephen King is great at coming up with new ways to explore the mind. Dreamcatcher and The Regulators are both extremely clever takes on how to hide from and battle a foreign mind-invader.

The Cell isn’t a great movie, but it inventively treats the mind as a landscape (and it’s got beautiful surrealistic imagery).

Antagonists of the mind aren’t always psychic or superhuman. Usually, a character’s grip on sanity is loosened via drugs, torture, trauma, or psychological abuse. The end of Carrie’s story works so well because of the realistically horrible ways the people in her life treat her. In Hannibal, Dr. Lecter gaslights Will into believing he’s gone mad, making him unable to trust his own thoughts and judgment. In Jacob’s Ladder, the horror of war makes the protagonist snap.

Dreams can also be manipulated by malevolent forces, drugs, technology, or psychic people or creatures (Perdido Street Station, Vurt, Infinite Rooms). You can show anything and make anything happen in a dream, and all of it can tie into deeper themes and reveal things about your character.

It seems like mental illness is almost never portrayed realistically. Maybe that’s because exaggerating and fictionalizing an illness like schizophrenia makes for a great story, or because a straight-up unrelatably crazy person makes for a good antagonist. (Identity, for example, is a bad portrayal and a really entertaining movie.) Part of the problem might be a lack of research and personal knowledge of the subject, because Insane  = Killer is easy. But like with most things, a story depicted somewhat more faithfully to reality is usually going to be better all around (A Wolf at the Table, The Yellow Wallpaper, A Head Full of Ghosts, The Drowning Girl, House of Leaves).

Psychological problems straddle the line between mind and body, and between the self and others. Addiction also does this, and like mental illness, it is challenging to write about without personal knowledge or research (The Shining, Trainspotting).

Then there’s the body. Just as the mind can rebel, so can the body, and from that idea we get stuff like Ash’s rogue hand. Also, we seem to have an infinite capacity for gross-out imagery: blood, unwanted or unnatural birth, parasites, viscera, slime, vomit, sex gone wrong. There’s an exhaustive treatment of this here. That list is all about movies, but I would also add Haunted, which contains one scene in particular that you’ll never, ever be able to forget, no matter how hard you try. Please don’t read it. You’ll despise me for mentioning it.

Anything to add? Bring it to the group page.

Brittany

Subjects & Themes: External Conflict

I’ve been thinking about the specific challenges of writing horror. I think one of the things I would struggle with the most is how to write on common horror-story subjects while avoiding clichés and without retreading old territory. I mean, this is true of everything, but in particular if something is scary, it’s probably been written to death.

Archetypes survive across time and culture for a reason. If you’ve got one in your story, it may be helpful to step back and think about why it’s scary, fascinating, and a good story element. When we deviate from what’s normal to us, primal instincts are tapped into that cause the subconscious to react. For instance, why is being alone in the dark scary? Is it fear of the unknown, of something that might be waiting there that could cause physical harm, or maybe madness?

I’m fascinated with this kind of thing, and if you’d like to really dig into the psychology of storytelling I suggest reading anything by Joseph Campbell. (He thought a little bit too much of Freud, but if you can get past that it’s amazing stuff.) Thinking along these lines would probably be helpful when trying to forge your own story.

Horror has a very big library of tried and true subjects to draw from, but they’ve all been done so many times, especially in film and on TV, that it’s vital that your take on it is from your own unique angle. Probably you don’t want to write the next Manos: The Hands of Fate.

So with all that in mind, I’d like to do a series of posts on horror archetypes, how they tie into deeper themes, and good examples of works that put a new spin on an old story, or that just retold it really effectively. I started out trying to stick with books and short stories, but a lot of our most iconic horror writing has been screenwriting, so I’ve included movies and TV shows as well. (I’m going for elements here, not works as a whole, so there’s a lot of cross-genre stuff.) I’m not really an aficionado, and there are a few things in this list I haven’t seen/read, so I’m going to need you guys to help me expand on it and correct me if I’ve listed something stupid.

When I started compiling this list, I realized every kind of horror conflict I can think of fits into three major categories: External, or Social (man vs. man), Internal, or Individual (man vs. self), and Supernatural. This first post is going to focus on the External.

1. Violence

The most basic primal instinct we have is survival. Anything you can think of that causes fear can be tied back to this instinct. Very much related is the idea of physical violence: murder, violation, pain, and brutality. Generally speaking, we’re all afraid of these things, to some degree. We are weak creatures and death is never far away. Man vs. Death: that’s our eternal conflict. If we were just afraid, horror would not be so popular, but we’re fascinated by this stuff too, by the idea of what happens after death, of course, but also on what happens leading up to that, and on the people who deal out the violence. Why do they do it? What’s broken with them? Could we break like that too?

In most developed places, violence is considered amoral and unacceptable, and people risk their freedom and their lives to commit their acts in secret. But what if there was a place for them in society? (In The Purge we’re all allowed a bit of murder to release tension. There’s a similar safety valve in The Handmaid’s Tale.) Additionally, what’s unacceptable to us may not be in another culture. Stoning deaths and witch-burnings are historical relics to us but current events in some places. What if they were still done here?

Now obviously just about everything can fit into more than one category, but some specific tropes include:

    • Torture (Saw)

2. Social Conflict

We are social animals, of course, and territorial ones. We find safety in numbers, and outside of preserving our own physical safety, our primary instinctual concern is the survival of whatever group we are part of. That categorization could be accidental, by choice, or thrust upon us; it can be the result of where we live, what we look like, how we grew up, or what we believe. We’ve been fighting each other for space, resources, and the domination of beliefs and customs for the whole of human history, and while good things can come of it (inventions, trade routes, genetic diversity), there’s been some very bad stuff, too, and the fear of even worse stuff to come.

Just like with personal violence, everything in this list has a very firm basis in reality. Like death, anarchy is never far away.

On that note, we’ve got:

    • Religious fanaticism; cults; mobs. The Mist, on the surface a not-very-impressive critter invasion story, is really about mob mentality, group psychosis, and people turning on each other.
    • Dystopias; imprisonment; coercion, subjugation, control; power-abusing authority figures. All of these kind of go together. Margaret Atwood said that every utopia is also a dystopia. There is no possible perfect society that is not also a prison. Really well-written dystopias look at both sides of the coin. The motivation and desire for power and control is just as interesting as the fight to gain independence from the oppressor. (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Underground Railroad, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Black Mirror, Dark City, Apt Pupil)
    • War, political massacres, and genocide. Pretty much the worst things one group of humans can do to another. Many of the best war stories focus on the psychological effects on the soldiers and victims, which is usually scarier than the blood and guts. (Johnny Got His Gun, Jacob’s Ladder, Full Metal Jacket)
  • Invasion. This one draws heavily on the themes of tribal mentality and xenophobia, but this time it’s Us vs. Them on a grander scale. The early invasion novels were about countries invading each other, a topic that evolved as fears changed (the Nazis, the Red Scare). Often this theme has played out metaphorically as humans vs. aliens. The aliens usually have superior technology to us, and they’re usually violent. They want to destroy our way of life and replace it with something abhorrent and unnatural. (Like communism.) Interestingly, many times a story about the external force of a threat to all of humankind ends on a rather propagandistic positive note, with intergroup or international cooperation: we all band together to defeat the enemy and we emerge stronger. (Dreamcatcher, John Dies at the End, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Starship Troopers, Event Horizon, The Thing, Mars Attacks)

3. Science/Technology

There have always been denouncers of science. It has been seen as threatening to existing religious beliefs and cultural norms. It has been rebelled against from an environmental or aesthetic standpoint. In developing countries, industrialization initially results in child labor and low wages. Fear of poor living conditions and the idea that technology takes away jobs can translate into fear of the technology itself. This concept has evolved from the demonization of factory machinery (Lord of the Rings) to rogue AI and evil computers. A common theme here is that our own ineptitude results in an inability to control what we create. Imperfect humans play God, creating very imperfect life, and it backfires. Some examples:

I feel like I’ve been writing a term paper, but I know I’ve missed a lot of stuff here. Tell me what to add!

Brittany

Full Moon First Drafts: “Come Pick Me Up”

Hey everybody, welcome back to Full Moon First Drafts. This time we’re going to do something that’s a little different. I’m going to be doing a draft from the beginning of what might be a longer form story for me. It’s a story idea that I had originally conceived as a feature film but has sat in the drawer for quite some time now. So I’m going to take it out, dust it off and take a crack at it in prose form. This week we’ll get a start on the first part, and then in subsequent weeks I’ll continue the story.

The basic conceit of the story is based off of a silent film from 1921 called “The Phantom Carriage.” In “The Phantom Carriage” the last person to die before the clock strikes twelve on the eve of the new year has to drive death’s carriage and pick up the souls of all those who die in the following year. So I had the idea to transport this particular story to the modern era.

“Come Pick Me Up” is a dark comedy set in a world much like our own, where what happens after death could be one of a million different religious hypotheses the rules of which are muddy, bureaucratic and complicated. The main character, Charlie, is forced to pick up the souls of the dead and carry them on to whatever the next thing is. Charlie does not live a privileged life. When the bureaucracy of the afterlife breaks down and the good and the evil all go to the same place Charlie has to make a decision about what to do with a charge he’s become close to.

So without too much planning or forethought, we’re just gonna’ see where this goes. Should be fun….maybe……….hopefully. Here goes part one of “Come Pick Me Up.”

COME PICK ME UP

by Levi Lee

          Charlie thrust into the waking world with a jolt, his head banging against the dingy armrest of the 1990 Buick Lesabre he’d been shackled to these last years as tiny pieces of window glass showered down on his face. He didn’t have time to register what was happening as the man reached his hand through the now open window frame and grabbed a fistful of the worn gray hoodie he wore underneath his pea coat to keep him warm these cold nights when he didn’t have the scratch to keep the heater running.

          “What the fuck!” Charlie half mumbled, still mostly asleep. He wasn’t alarmed so much as frustrated. Seemed like a carjacking so far, but who the hell would want the shitbox he slept in. Somebody desperate, that was for sure. They definitely picked the wrong car, though. Charlie wasn’t violent or anything, he was just already dead, and as such, didn’t have much to lose. He was halfway out of the window when his coat caught the edges of the frame, and that combined with the halfhearted resistance he was putting up was enough to get the guy to let go of his hoodie and stop with the yanking. Charlie, shaking off the last remnants of sleep, finally got a look at the guy then.

          He was definitely a junkie. The man was thin and frail looking, with scraggly, long dark hairs hanging in front of his face in stuck together strands. His face was drawn, sucked in and puckered under the cheek bones, and covered in sweat. He was already shaking a bit, and couldn’t keep the gun completely level from the tremors. Charlie sighed, he felt a little bad for the guy. Not much, but a little. He was probably the kinda’ guy who never had a good break in his life, and this situation, Charlie knew, wasn’t going to shake out any better for him.

          “G-get out a’ the fuckin’ car man!” He stammered a little, either nervous or the effects of his kick, Charlie couldn’t tell for sure. Charlie looked up and down the road. Not a car in sight.

          “You’re not very good at this, are you?” Charlie said, “Of all the streets in this city you pick the one where your only choice for a carjacking victim drives a 1990 Buick Lesabre? C’mon man. You look rough, but at some point in your life you gotta’ have standards. You just walk a block west and shit starts to get gentrified! You could at least try for something that’s been manufactured since the turn of the century!” The junkie was starting to get flustered.

          “I said, get out of the fucking car!” He shouted, shaking the gun in Charlie’s face.

          “No. You broke my window.” Charlie’s reply was curt, matter of fact.

          “What?!”

          “Forget it. Not doing it. You broke my window, and you know what…hold on a second.”

          “What are you talking about man?! Get out of the fucking car!!” The junkie was shouting now, the spittle flying out of his mouth in little ropes that broke off at their apex and split into tiny rivulets of saliva.

           “Just….” Charlie held up his finger, and slid back inside the car, he reached into his pocket and produced a small slightly tattered notepad, some of the pages dog-eared and frayed at the edges. He flipped through a few of the pages, and then stopping on one, looked up and peered out through the broken window.

        “What’s your name?” He asked. The junkie looked confused. His eyebrows furrowed together and cocking his head ever so slightly to the side he let the barrel of the gun droop a little, listing to the left. Charlie thought then, momentarily, about flinging the car door open and into the man’s arm in an attempt to knock the gun from his hand. He could probably do it. This guy didn’t have any more business trying to pull off a carjacking than Eddie Vedder trying his hand at hip hop. But he couldn’t be bothered, and he had a feeling he knew how this situation was going to end anyway. It seemed like the kind of thing Vincent would arrange, a fucked up wake up call of sorts. So instead he just waited for the man’s answer.

          “M-Martin.” His voice sounded weak and confused. Charlie looked back down to the notepad, running his index finger down the page and then tapping lightly when he found what he was looking for.

          “Martin Gale?” He asked, without looking up from the pad.

          “That’s right. How did you….” The junkie replied.

           “Listen Martin. You look like you’re about to fall apart at any second anyway, but your pick up isn’t until next week. So if you could just do me a solid and wander on down to somewhere they drive vehicles that are worth your time and effort to actually steal I would…” The screeching sound of rubber against pavement jolted Charlie back to attention, and he raised his head just in time to see the city bus barrel down on top of the junkie. In a split second, he saw the man’s face smash against the flat glass of the bus’s windshield, a spurt of blood and teeth coming out of his mouth, followed by the massive condom advertisement that flew past his window as the bus raced by.

          It came to stop about forty feet down the road, and the junkie came to a stop about fifty feet further than that, a messy streak of red marking the trail from where he hit the pavement and slid to where he now lay.

          “Goddammit.” Charlie said. “I haven’t even had my coffee.” Sighing heavily, he lazily swung the car door open, tiny bits of glass falling to the street below as he stepped out of the car and brushed himself off. Charlie looked pretty rough himself, he looked better than the mound of mangled flesh now spattered across the street, but not by much. His brown hair was matted in a closely cropped cut on top of his head, with a little gray creeping in at the edges on the side. He didn’t usually bother to shave, and having been a few days since he’d done so he was working on the beginnings of a wiry looking beard. He was average height, average build. Charlie was almost markedly average in every conceivable way, the only thing that was decidedly not average about Charlie, was his job. Charlie’s job was to pick up the dead, to pick them up and take them to wherever it was they next needed to go.

         So here he was, just barely awake, having already been held at gunpoint, and now finding himself responsible for getting this poor schmuck to the next link in the chain of the afterlife. He walked several feet down the road, trying to get a better look at the junkie. Maybe he wasn’t dead. Maybe the paramedics  would get there in just a moment, carry him to hospital, get him on life support and keep him going for the next week so this wouldn’t completely fuck up his schedule. He squinted, and raised his hand to cover his eyes against the morning sun. He thought he saw the poor bastards chest rise and then fall again in short gasping breaths.

          The door of the bus hissed open and the driver, a dumpy looking man in his forties by the look of him, came tumbling out, his face a mask of confusion.

          “I just looked away for a second! I just…there was a kid who was yelling and I…” The driver muttered, his voice starting to crack. He looked to Charlie. “He must have jumped out in front of me, right?” Charlie looked over at the man, pulled a face and shook his head.

          “He was standing in the middle of the road, Jack. He didn’t jump out in front of you. He was trying to steal my car. Been standing there for a minute.”

          “There’s no way! I would have seen him!” The driver cried in protest.

          “Yeah, well, you didn’t.” Charlie replied. The driver began to heave, bending over to put his hands on his knees in an effort to steady himself as he expelled his stomach onto the street.

          “Yeah yeah. I know. You fucking killed a guy. It’s awful.” Charlie mocked him. “I mean, let’s hope you didn’t actually kill him, well, not yet anyway, because I have shit I need to do today. I got a schedule to keep.” The driver kept heaving, not hearing him. Charlie looked back at the junkie, lying there, the pool of blood around him growing by inches with every moment. He was still. Charlie closed his eyes, his jaw clenched tight. He drew a sharp breath in through his nose and turned around to look back toward his car.

          There, standing on the curb by his passenger side door, was the junkie, looking marred by life, but not completely fucked from a bus hitting him at thirty-five miles an hour. He looked very confused.

          “Goddammit! Goddammit! Goddammit!” Charlie stamped his feet in frustration. “You fucking idiot!” He trudged back to the car, jamming his hands in the pockets of his long blue pea coat. The junkie raised a trembling finger, pointing past Charlie as he walked over and opened the passenger side door for him.

          “What….w-what is that?” The junkie stammered.

           “T-t-that?” Charlie said, annoyed and mimicking the man’s pitiful stutter. “That is what happens when you try to pull off a carjacking in the middle of the street on an alcoholics bus route.” The car door creaked loudly on it’s hinges as he pulled it open. He took the junkie by the shoulders and pushed him, now trembling, down and into the seat.

           “That’s not me, is it?” The junkie cried. Charlie ignored him, slamming the door shut and hurried walking over to the other side of the car.

          “That’s not me, right?!” The junkie cried again. Charlie fished the keys from his pocket as he swung himself back into the vehicle.

           “That’s not FUCKING ME, RIGHT?!” The junkie was screaming now.

            “There’s that fucking spittle again. Don’t get it all over the dash, okay? Wipe your mouth like a human being with dignity and self respect, would you?” Charlie replied as he turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life.

           “Where’s my fucking leg?!” The junkie screamed, holding his hands out in supplication to the body on the asphalt. Charlie pointed over to the bus.

           “Caught underneath the tires, man. It’s underneath the tires. Will you shut up now? We got a ways to drive.” The junkie began sobbing in reply, quivering and shaking in his seat, drool trailing down out of his mouth and sticking to his chin before dropping down into his lap.

           “This is gonna’ be a long trip, isn’t it?” Charlie asked no one in particular.

Info-dumping

I couldn’t think of a pertinent picture to go with this post so you get this.

Everybody’s got different approaches to writing, but no matter how you do it, your final draft is not going to magically come out in one piece and in the right order the first time through. A good story is always going to take some rewriting (probably lots).

As Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” When you’re acquainting yourself with your character, his or her background, the setting, and what’s going on, you’re probably going to plop it down any way you can to get it all out of your head, and that’s normal. You’ve got to flesh the character and world out for yourself so you can make your reader believe it. However, that means you’ll have a lot of throat-clearing, which can result in two problems:

  • The story might not be starting in the right place. Usually how this ends up is that you have a scene, or several scenes, that are unnecessary for the actual story you want to tell. Sometimes it means that you’re telling too much in hindsight and your story would benefit starting earlier in time so that you’re progressing instead of stopping to reminisce.
  • You’ll probably end up with a lot of stuff that the reader doesn’t need to know, at least not explicitly and probably not all at once. And you’re probably telling it all in a big piece of exposition instead of showing it.

Because both of these things are likely right there at the beginning of your story (or even each time you introduce a new character or place), all that excess information might bore your readers right off the bat. That’s not good. You want to engage them immediately. They’re here to meet your amazing character for sure, but they don’t need to know everything about them right away. Readers want to see what happens to characters and what they do. You need to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling, and a big chunk of character backstory or setting description (an info-dump) will stop your narrative in its tracks.

So the trick is to give the readers enough to make the world and the characters feel real without putting them to sleep. Sometimes you’ve just got to tell stuff, and that’s fine. Too much of that will be boring, though. “This happened, and it happened in a place that looked like this.” So it’s good to also work in details organically, and there are lots of ways to do that.

Description: What does the POV character notice and pick up on? Personality, background, skills, mood, and what’s going on will all affect how someone perceives their surroundings. For example, instead of telling the reader that your character was tired and annoyed, and that she works at night, you could say:

Carol rubbed the corner of her eye with a finger. After years of working at night, anything above sixty watts was irritating, and the hall was cheerfully bright. Robert’s prattle was irritating, too, and his shirt was missing a button. She wanted to stab him in the back of the neck.

Actions: What your characters do can reveal stuff about their personality. For example, instead of telling the reader that Carol’s not a people person, you could say:

He extended his hand, obviously attempting to get on her good side. Carol rolled her eyes and shook it. Her ring of silver crosses burned into his palm and he shrieked.

Thoughts: You can work hints into the character’s internal monologue. For example, instead of telling the reader that Carol has just moved from the city to the country, you could say:

She missed New York. At least the vampires there had half a brain.

Dialogue: You can stick all kinds of information about both speakers into a conversation.

“Hey Carol!” Darlene’s voice was an octave too high and about twenty decibels too loud. She waved with an empty cocktail glass and moved in. Carol grimaced, but there was no escape. She gave a little wave back.

“I haven’t seen you in ages! How’s that boyfriend of yours doing?”

Carol shrugged. “Had to kill him.”

You can also use flashbacks, but be careful! They can easily become problems of their own. Flashbacks usually work best when they’re very short, like this:

There he was, standing on the other side of the room, as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened. As if she hadn’t cut his head off and buried it in the yard last night. As if she hadn’t put his body in the furnace and cleaned out his bank account. Carol sighed. This kind of thing was starting to get old.

If you’ve got three pages of a flashback that spells out a whole scene, stop and think about whether the reader needs this information at all, and if so, if it can be pruned down, or if the scene can be moved around so that part of the story can be told on its own without framing it as a past occurrence. Your reader wants to get on with the story, so it’s usually best not to stop the forward momentum to tell about what’s happened before.

Having said that, don’t feel like you have to box yourself into a linear progression…just be aware of how moving forward and backward in time will make your readers feel and make sure that how you’re doing it will engage them more, not less.

So the takeaway from all this is that usually, some of what you’ve written (maybe a lot) is going to have to be moved around or cut. All the research you did on every aspect of what your main character does for a living or where she lives may have been necessary for you to get the story on the page and create an immersive world, but your reader probably just doesn’t need to know all of it. Some of it, sure, but the little details you work in during the course of the story are going to be far more effective than a lecture on the ins and outs of electrical work or an exhaustive description of the Welsh countryside. Your readers have good imaginations, and you can trust them to fill in details from their own experience.

If you can think of any other ways of tackling this issue, please post your ideas on the group page!

Brittany

 

On Point of View

The number-one goal of writing fiction is to fascinate your readers. You want them to get sucked into a hole in the page and forget there’s a real world they have to go back to.

Yeah, I know that breaking the fourth wall is a thing and Deadpool and Shakespeare do it all the time. There are always exceptions, okay.

But usually when readers come across something that makes them remember somebody made all this up, they get pulled out of the story, and that makes them start to lose interest. Point of view is an important thing in this regard because mistakes with it can easily break your story. If the reader gets confused or irritated enough, they’re going to stop reading, and they might not come back to read anything else you write.

So here’s an overview of point of view techniques. None of them are inherently better than the others, and what’s best to use is up to your individual style and what works with the story, because each one’s going to have different effects on your writing and on the reader.

 

Third Person

This is kind of the default for fiction, but there’s a lot of variation in how you tackle it, and the decisions you make will affect how strongly the reader identifies with the character.

If your narration includes language that the character would actually say, that closes some of the distance between the character and the reader. Language will vary from person to person based on where someone lives, how educated they are, what frame of mind they’re in, and what’s going on. You can insert clues to help the reader understand the situation and what kind of person the character is. For example:

 

Tina ran from the mutant rabbit, tripping over her feet. These stupid ever-loving heels, she thought. Why the hell did I wear them today?

 

That’s kind of “shallow” third person. If we remove words like “thought,” “realized,” and “wondered” (“barrier words”), we go deeper into the perspective because we’re reading the character’s thoughts as if they’re our own:

 

These stupid ever-loving heels! Why the hell did I wear them today?

 

A person’s background, personality, and state of mind are going to affect how they perceive things, what they notice, and what’s going on. Putting in description that’s colored by the character’s perspective is a subtle way to get readers further into their head. It also lets you inject some mood in the scene and helps keep the description from getting boring, by directly tying it in to the character and the action (part of the “show, don’t tell” thing).

Here are two descriptions of the same scene, one deep into the perspective and one not as much.

 

I know it’s around here somewhere, Tina thought. She strained to hear it coming, but all she could make out was the wailing of the wind. The camp was isolated, no one around for miles. The setting sun’s light reflected off the pointy metal structures dotting the hill.

 

I know it’s around here somewhere. She strained to hear it, but all she could make out was the lonely wail of the wind. The camp was isolated, no one around for miles. The red light of the setting sun glared off the metal structures dotting the hill. They looked like sharp gleaming teeth.

 

Basically, the deeper you go into a character’s perspective, the more your reader will understand and identify with the character. That’s usually a good thing, but not always. You might not want your reader to identify with your antagonist. Or it might not be practical, like how a killer’s direct thoughts might all be gibberish.

With third person you can tell a story from different angles and hit all the plot points because you can do scenes from the POV of different characters. Keep in mind that if you have too many POV characters, your reader won’t be able to identify as strongly with your main one(s). It can even make it hard to tell who the main ones are.

 

First Person

In first person, the narrator (always a character in fiction, not the writer, even if the story is based on reality) speaks directly to the reader.

 

I ran from the mutant rabbit, screaming at the top of my lungs.

 

First person has the advantage of immediately putting the reader inside a character’s head, but it’s restricting on the writer: you can’t tell the reader anything the narrating character can’t know. Depending on the story, you might have a hard time hitting all the plot points. And you might automatically lose tension if the character is in danger, because they have to survive to tell about it (unless it’s framed as a diary, or it’s a ghost talking, or something). If your reader doesn’t like the character or can’t connect with them, and your whole book’s from the POV of that character, they’re in for a slog.

However, you can do some interesting things with first person, like an unreliable narrator. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is a good example.

 

Second Person

This is going to make people think of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s not usually recommended, and it would probably get old in a novel, but it could work great in a short story if done well. This perspective is going to naturally be sort of shallow because it’s hard for readers to believe it when they’re outright told that they’re feeling something. It’s also probably going to need to be in present tense, unless you’ve got a really good reason to tell your reader what happened to them in the past.

 

You know it’s around here somewhere. You strain to hear it coming, but all you can make out is the wailing of the wind. The camp is isolated, no one around for miles.

 

Omniscient

Omniscient is the god-view. The narrator isn’t a character in the story, so the narration can cover lots of things without the filter of a single character’s mind. This will probably be simpler to write, but you’ll lose the immediacy of a single perspective, so readers might not be as engaged as they would be seeing through a character’s eyes.

 

The mutant rabbit chased Tina down the hill. Terrified, she ran, screaming bloody murder. A distant camper froze at the sound.

 

You can interject kind of an all-seeing voice.

 

Since the dawn of time, no creature had been more terrifying.

 

You can break the fourth wall if you really want to. (Really, you can do that from any POV, though. It was very fashionable in the Jane Eyre days, and that one’s in first person.)

 

Reader, she was terrified. Wouldn’t you be?

 

And you can show details that no one in the story knows, although be careful to only show things that are pertinent to the story or characters. Don’t bore people with description that’s just there to be pretty.*

*Unless you’re writing literary fiction, I guess? There I cannot help you.

 

The girl ran down the hill, unaware that a pit lay just ahead, waiting to trap her.

 

That’s not a great way to present this information, but at least it’s relevant. By contrast, this doesn’t work so well:

 

The girl ran down the hill, the rabbit in pursuit. Centuries ago, a great and bloody battle had been fought here.

 

There are situations where omniscient is definitely the way to go. This isn’t a horror example (sorry), but Clan of the Cave Bear is written in omniscient, and it works great. But omniscient was still in style back then, and it’s not really in favor anymore, probably because it’s much more riveting to be deep inside a character’s head, and also because of the danger of…

 

Head-hopping

This is one of those rules that you really do have to follow. Even if you’re a master, it’s very hard to pull off jumping around in your POV. A manuscript reader, acquisitions editor, or contest judge will notice it right away, call it a rookie mistake, and toss your story.

Here’s an example:

 

Tina ran from the mutant rabbit, her breathing ragged. She tripped and went down. Why didn’t I change out of these stupid heels? The rabbit reared above her, triumphant, its mad brain overwhelmed with bloodlust. He would deliver this woman’s head to his queen, but first he would feast.

 

We start in the victim’s POV and then abruptly jump into the antagonist’s head with no transition. This is a huge problem. It’s going to pull your reader out of the story super fast, breaking any tension you’ve built up. It can get really confusing, too. When the readers have to stop and puzzle stuff out that they shouldn’t have to think about, eventually they’ll throw your book against the wall.

So it’s very important to pick a perspective and stick with it, at least until the end of a paragraph, but preferably until the end of a scene or chapter.

Having said that, getting what you’re going for out of a scene might call for varying levels of depth into a character, and for different kinds of POV, too. If you can’t avoid switching perspectives in the middle of a scene, make sure it’s easy to follow. There are tricks you can use, like extra line breaks, to indicate that it’s the same scene but that you’ve switched perspectives.

 

The rabbit chased Tina down the hill. She screamed bloody murder. She knew she wouldn’t make it.

 

In the distance, a camper heard the scream and froze. He dialed 911 and climbed into his truck.

 

The rabbit reared above his prize, triumphant, his mad brain overwhelmed with bloodlust. He would deliver this woman’s head to his queen after all. With a joyful squeal, he opened his jaws wide, preparing to feast.

 

I really don’t need to jump around like this here, but it should give you some idea of what I mean. We go from third-person (protagonist), to omniscient, to third-person (antagonist). Make sure to immediately clue in the reader as to whose head they’re in after a switch.

 

In summary

Try not to worry too much about what’s in fashion. Pretty much any POV technique you could ever think of has been used very successfully by very successful authors. What’s important is to understand the pluses and minuses of each type of POV, which one or which combination of them will best tell your story and keep your reader riveted, and how to avoid head-hopping. Make sure to stick with whatever you go with, only changing it up when it makes sense, so no one gets confused or frustrated.

If you have any questions for me or things to discuss, please post them on the group page!

Brittany

Adversity and Horror.

by Levi Lee

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

-Stephen King

First of all, you must forgive me in advance, because I’m going to take a moment to discuss some things vaguely political in nature, as so many people are wont to do these last months. I’m not going to get into specifics. I’m not going to parse through the ins and outs of any of the myriad hot-button issues that are being bandied about lately. No party candidate or viewpoint is going to be endorsed here. I’m merely going to take a moment to acknowledge some things.

Our country is probably more divided than it’s ever been since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are now a mere day away from the completion of what I’m sure will go down as one of the most unabashedly embarrassing Presidential campaign seasons that this country has seen in its’ history. Kids are being gunned down in schools by other kids. Police officers are shooting unarmed citizens. Citizens are shooting police officers. We seem to be living in a waking nightmare, a wonderful country that seems hell bent on stumbling over the edge into a dystopia if ever there was one. If you’re like myself, and you’re looking for some semblance of hope to hang onto, I have one for you.

Everything that’s happening right now, is GREAT for horror.

Horror not only survives in adversity, it thrives. One could even argue that the birth of the modern horror film can be traced back to the Great Depression and the 1931 release of the first of Universal Studios’ famous horror pictures, Dracula. Now, I’m sure that those of you who know a thing or two about a thing or two in this genre will relish the opportunity to throw Universal’s prior films “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera” in my face like so much scalding hot coffee, but I would have to dab my newly scarred face politely with a handkerchief and wholeheartedly disagree with you. You see, “Hunchback” and “Phantom” were pitched to Carl Laemmle by his son Junior and given the go ahead based on their viability as prestige pictures based on classic works of literature, and while in retrospect we view them as two of the earliest cinematic works in the genre they were not, strictly speaking, horror films. They were more along the lines of dark historical dramas. They were a precursor of the modern horror film, the shape of things to come.

Carl Laemmle did not see the appeal of the horror genre in the least. His son Junior, however, was a bit more forward thinking. The elder Laemmle had gifted the studio to his son on his 21st birthday in 1929, and two years later they released Dracula. Dracula was completely different than anything that had come before it. Films that had any kind of horror elements before had grounded their horror in reality, always having some kind of rational explanation for the terror on the screen. The monsters that were in film were all twisted human beings of one sort or the other. Dracula was a real monster, a 500-year-old walking corpse that feasted on the flesh of the living. There was no rational explanation to be had, or as Van Helsing liked to put it, “The strength of the vampire is that we do not believe in him.”

You have to understand what a departure this was from the normative of cinematic storytelling, and it touched off a whole period of film history that is arguably best known for Universal Studios’ contributions to the genre. Nothing like this had ever been seen before in Hollywood, but we needed something to take us away from the real horrors of the world. There was no work, no money, no food. Our economy was collapsing under the weight of the previous decades’ indulgence, and our children were starving. We needed as the collective people of this country, to walk into a theater, be scared out of our minds by something we couldn’t possibly understand, and with that last flicker of the projector, walk back into the street…and be okay. We needed to know that we were going to be okay. Horror helps us cope. Horror lets us touch the darkness and know that we’ll come out the other side in one piece.

So, regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s bit of madness, I have a feeling that we are in store for a whole new chapter in American Horror storytelling. I desperately want to be a part of it. How about you?

 

deadCENTER Screenwriting Workshop!

Writing is often thought of as solitary affair. It’s all about a person, in a room, often dimly lit, alone with their thoughts and neuroses, willing a story into creation.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! That’s what OkHoWL is all about. It’s about writers using their abilities and talents to help and encourage other writers, and hopefully get some help and encouragement of their own.

OkHoWL isn’t unique in this regard though, and from time to time we’ll post about other writing related events happening in around the OKC metro, or at least not too far off.

Anyway, on November 19th, from 9:00AM to 12:00PM, the deadCENTER Film Institute, parent organization of deadCENTER Film Festival, is putting on a free screenwriting seminar. All the details can for it the event can be found HERE.

Even if you’re not a screenwriter this event is sure to be a treat. The folks at deadCENTER have worked for years to promote the art of film in the state of Oklahoma, and they put on some great events. Their namesake film festival is a must see,  and each year they usually host an entire program of horror short-films. Past fests have also played host to films by yours truly and OkHoWL founder Levi Lee, so you know that this is an organization with an eye for talent.

If you’re free on the morning of November 19th and want to dip your toe into a kind of writing you may not know much about, come on out. I’ll be there, and afterward you can join us at the Southwest OKC Library for our next OkHoWL meeting. It’ll be a day of writing, talking about horror movies and books, and sharing weird anecdotes. What more could you ask for?

‘RAW’ Will Send You to the ER

https://www.inverse.com/article/20992-raw-cannibal-movie-faint-toronto?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=kw&utm_campaign=promoted&kwp_0=234002&kwp_4=911741&kwp_1=442676

So, apparently there’s been a spat of people that have been sent to the hospital from adverse reactions to the new indie cannibal flick ‘Raw.’ Now, we’ve all seen marketing ploys like this before. Distribution companies would supply theater chains with barf bags to hand out at the door to wary theater goers as they entered the auditorium in the 70’s. I mean hell, in the 50’s and 60’s you’d think from the advertisements that 90% of horror films carried with them the distinct possibility of death as a side effect of viewing.

In this day and age we’re a little less gullible about such things (thanks a lot science), and while most might view this as a good thing I, for one, mourn the loss of the deranged bit of fun walking into a theater with the trepidation of what you’re about to see inducing a physical, chemical reaction.

My best friends Dad once recounted to me the experience of going to see Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ and seeing someone run out of the theater vomiting. As sick as it may be that’s the kind of movie going experience I long for. So for me, this kind of thing is really exciting. There are probably varying degrees of truth to the reports, but the possibility intrigues me.

The article also does a really good job of explaining the physiological reactions we have as humans to certain images.

Check out the article for sure. Check out the movie at your own risk. I’m totally seeing it though.

Happy Halloween!