Why I Hate Symbolism

In and of itself, symbolism is fine. It’s a simple literary device, and a tool like any other. The reason I claim to hate it stems from high school English.

In high school English, we encountered a story that I intensely disliked. The plot was that a man with many varied tattoos on the front of his body, whose wife was a strict Christian and kind of a nasty person, decided to get a tattoo of Christ on his back. It was a large tattoo that he got all in one go, and it depicted a Christ who reflected some of the wrath of judgement. Then he went to work driving a tractor for someone else, zoned out, and crashed the tractor into a tree. The tree and tractor both caught on fire. He lost his shoes. The man then went home and showed the tattoo to his wife, who proceeded to beat him with a broom for adorning himself with the likeness of Christ, since she apparently belongs to one of the denominations against iconography. He ends up outside alone under a tree, crying.

This was a story about an unbeliever finding God.

I am a Christian. It was a Christian high school. The author of the story was a Christian, and wrote it on her deathbed. I argued in the resulting assignment that the author converted to atheism on said deathbed. I could not comprehend the symbolism of the story: how the tattoo on the back was intended to be belief in the unseen and the tree burning was God…doing something. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Because I cannot condone this story. It’s a horrible story. It’s a very undirected tale about a loser getting a tattoo he can’t afford, losing his job through his own spectacular idiocy, and getting abused by his wife. But if I look at the symbolism it’s supposed to be completely different.

I refuse to do so. I refuse to forgive unsatisfactory plotting and characterization for the sake of something that is supposed to be a tool, not the point of the story. And it is awful writing, because it failed to portray what was intended if you don’t look at the guide provided for the symbolism. (Yes, the author has a guide to their symbolism. Sign of genius, everyone.)

This is not an isolated occurrence. There are many movies and books that treat the symbolism as the story. One critically acclaimed movie I saw recently had me yelling at the characters to get a psychiatrist for the protagonist. After beating someone to the point where they were hospitalized, (for symbolism!), he says “I didn’t do that.” I didn’t do that. That is disturbing on so many levels. Frankly, these movies and books tick me off. Call me a commercialist, but if the plot and the symbolism say something completely different, how can I respect the author? How hard is it to make them match? Why wouldn’t you make them match? Why would you make symbolism the point of your story when it’s just supposed to be a tool to improve it?

So, to be clear: I don’t hate the tool of symbolism, but I do hate when it becomes the actual story and the plot, taken alone, does not reflect this story.

A. C. F.

 

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Write (Around) What You Know

Sorry, that’s a confusing title, isn’t it? Welp, here’s an unnecessarily long explanation for it!

I was one of the biggest proponents of “Write ANYTHING BUT what you know” for the longest time. This goes back to why I despise journal-keeping with all of my being, and can be summarized by a standard whiny eight-year-old’s complaint perfectly: it’s boooooring.

I then got smacked in the face with the concept of, “This isn’t talking about restricting yourself to your life story, it’s telling you to build off your experiences and do research. Come on, you uncultured heathen! As if anyone would seriously advise you to write about your own monotonous existence!”

Either this seems to be a minority interpretation of the cliché, or it just never gets fully explained and as children we misinterpret it completely. Regardless, even this advice isn’t perfect. Better? Yes. Perfect? Hahahaha…no. Four words cannot encapsulate all the benefits and pitfalls of drawing from personal experience and/or research.

Allow me to cover one of these pitfalls. In grade 11 art class, we were required to paint a large acrylic. (Hop over to the gallery if you want to see mine. It’s the one with the random cliff thing and flying fish ship in space.) Now, we were allowed to compose our painting from scratch. We were also allowed to go pick an image or two to use as a “reference.” Basically everyone took this option, myself included. I proceeded to locate every Roger Dean Yes album cover I could, and stared at all of them for a couple of weeks before sketching the outline to something similar to his work. I didn’t try to paint exactly what he had done, mostly because I was just beginning to understand that something being different than my internal vision does not make it an artistic failure as my perfectionist streak had led me to believe for my entire life. I knew that ripping off his stuff would only end up spurring me to a complete mental breakdown as I would be unable to copy every line exactly.

I started to paint, discovering that I hated acrylics in the process. My art teacher still loved the painting. This was for two reasons. First, he likes the band Yes. That always helps. Second, the painting was not a recreation of an existing album cover.

If that sounds like an inconsequential reason to love a painting, well. My classmates interpreted “references” differently than I did. Straight attempts at copy-paste were the norm. Their sources were, admittedly, mostly photographic rather than being someone else’s paintings, and sometimes they would combine photos, but the colour blobs in said photos equaled the colour blobs on the artwork. Few to none were in the “from scratch” department, and there weren’t even that many who tried to put a bit of their own style into the picture. They were well done technically, and I’d say most were better than mine in that department, but they were recreations rather than creations.

This is simply not how a reference should be used. When it comes to writing from sources, be they academic or experiential, I’d advise you to try to create rather than recreate. Create something like the Pyrrhic Wars, not a beat-for-beat retelling set in space. Research Tarot cards all you want, but try coming up with your own version of their laying pattern and interpretations. And while reproducing an event that happened in your life and having your character go through it can be cathartic, it doesn’t necessarily make for good writing. Putting a spin on these things of one kind or another will allow you to use your imagination and get the “what if” gears churning; always a good thing.

Try making an effort to write around what you know, rather than writing exactly what you know. It’ll help you be original and creative and all that jazz.

Off to work on Novel the Second,

A. C. F.

Quitting the Right Way

I read an article about quitting a year ago, but found that it raised more questions than answers when I was looking for more specific guidance. Somehow, this did not motivate me or help me in any way, shape, or form. I wonder why.

Having done some champion level quitting in my time, I decided I’d try to use my example to offer advice of when to know to quit something from my own experience. And I do advocate quitting more strongly than you’d think.

This gets into my life story to a certain extent. If you don’t care, here is the summary of my advice: If you’re doing something for fun, and, after a fair trial, it isn’t fun, quit. If it was once fun, but no longer is, find some new way to enjoy it, or something completely new to enjoy. If you’re working on a project, and things are constantly changing from your original vision, you should probably take a step back and evaluate why these changes are happening, and if it would be less trouble to restart from scratch, or abandon the project altogether. Believe me when I say I’ve abandoned more projects than I may ever finish, and that I think I will continue to do so. Not all ideas are worth my while to pursue.

Now, life story:

I avoid giving up on hobbies all at once. It doesn’t feel nice to start something and find that you lack the drive, or the extra time, to finish it. Instead, I usually just push it off and push it off with other things until it is no longer on my priorities list at all. This is why I am currently drumming and ballroom dancing as hobbies, rather than having learned the piano, or having learned the guitar, or playing as many sports as I used to. I have frequently quit things, as you can probably tell from that list, but I did it the sneaky way.

It’s still quitting. And that’s okay. With regards to the sports, with age, the number of teams available to play on declined. Then I needed to choose to play on the team that is above my level of play due to an influx of older boys who play much more consistently than I do, a team that seems skill levels below me, or a team that matches my skill level, but never plays for fun. And that is when I quit. It was no longer fun in any of these cases, although more fun in some cases than in others, and was set aside for other things. University, for one.

With regards to piano and guitar, and probably a number of other art forms (yes, I’ve lost count), the trouble was that I am a perfectionist, and I did not have a teacher. This caused much frustration, little progress, and ended up with me feeling worse after practicing than before, since I never saw noticeable improvement toward my ideal. Should I have quit these things? Maybe not. But I didn’t quit drumming. I tackled that obstacle of beginner’s non-improvement with drumming, thanks to a couple hours of help, but it was close for a while. And I’ve had on-again off-again drum sessions, but I keep coming back. In everything musical, I find drumming most satisfying. Yes, it’s because I get to beat things up. Does wonders for stress.

I still find I have more desire to drum than I ever did to play guitar . . . but I had to try both before I discovered this. It makes me glad I never went in for lessons and wasted money, but to discover if you have a strong desire to learn something you have an interest in, you do need to try it. Ask a proficient friend for beginner lessons; you should figure out if you want it quickly enough. It also means, if you don’t have a drive to learn it, you will likely end up quitting it. Is it disappointing? Yes. Should you keep doing something you don’t love when it’s supposed to be just a hobby? Definite no, even if you feel some obligation to it.

Which then brings me to writing. This is where I quit the most, yet succeeded the most. Admittedly, there’s a difference between when you quit a specific project and when you quit trying to learn a whole skill set.

Let us start out where I started out. I did some writing and it sucked. My mother, ever helpful, gave me pointers on how to make it better. I essentially gave the “you just don’t get it” defense, stormed off, and swore that I would never write stories again.

I’m going to let the blog speak for itself here.

Oh, I kept imagining my very heroic and unique stories (read: complete rip off of things I liked), but I didn’t write them down. Much. Even with that vow, and creative writing consistently being my worst grade, I couldn’t ever seem to actually fully give up on it. It gave me too much pleasure, I suppose. Also, have you ever ripped off somebody else’s stories, just in your own head? It’s really fun at the time, because you have to do no work, and it’s really funny in hindsight when you realize how much you just changed the surface details. Mortifying, but I’m glad that none of those were the first book I wrote. For most people, they are. It’s known as a trunk novel. Better known as kindling.

The other thing going on at this time was that I was reading. Voraciously. I had refused to write, but I still loved a great story. My mom also had quite the library to support this. Not too many years ago, I read more than 50 books in half a school year. It was part of this “hundred books for a pizza party” thing. I eventually stopped counting, but before that my teacher just gave up on confirming I’d read the books when I came in with nine books after March Break.

Curse you, University! Not only do you constantly deplete my creative juices, you’re in the way of my voracious reading! How dare you!

Ahem. Well, I will say that the reading was very important. Reading is one of the key parts of writing. It’s how you learn. I have an ever-growing book stack I need to get through.

Moving on. Entering high school, I was growing more and more intent on writing The Novel. I’d written pieces of things here and there, and planned plenty of longer stories, but I’d never been able to piece them together into a coherent whole. I was starting to get serious about doing so. I was finding every possible online writing aid I could, and reading every backlist article. And I planned another novel. It starred some honourable, cynical assassin who was the illegitimate son of the evil Lord and ends up protecting a Lady against his will. In hindsight, there was a very convoluted magic system, the plot made little sense, and it was depressing.

At the same time, I thought up a short story. This story has never been written, yet it is already infamous in my household for the sheer evil it contains. My mother, after hearing about it, refused to read it. It was to be an experiment in writing from the perspective of a bad guy. The narrator was going to be an unscrupulous, murderous coward who, through the idiocy of his partner, ends up having to face a crow-turned-demon. We don’t do demons in my house.

I kept working on The Novel. I also created two different cat burglar characters (one for grade 9, one for grade 10) and wrote short stories about them. This distracted me for a while, and the next time I really thought about The Novel, I…didn’t like it. I felt very meh about the whole thing. And that horror story was still floating around in my head, refusing to be dislodged no matter how much I disliked the characters or the premise.

I forget how, exactly, this next part happened, but as I was falling asleep at some point, I came up with yet another potential novel. This one had a quest plot line and a stupid joke where stinky seaweed had a name that sounded like “gold,” making a skeezy port city be nicknamed “the city of gold.” I decided to quit while I was ahead the next morning. Next thing I knew, everything had merged, and I had something very different in my brain for The Novel than when I had started.

The assassin was still kicking around (and being humourless. Yuck.) and his story was still there for the writing. But it no longer held any interest for me. No, I had a new character in my mind. He was the assassin mixed with the murderous coward, plus some morals. Overall, he reminded me more of the narrator of the demon crow story…who I couldn’t remember the name of. After being severely annoyed by this fact, I came up with a new name and started to plot. It was a quest plot line. Wonder where that came from?

And the assassin’s story was Quitted. Rest in peace, ya tortured cynic of a humourless assassin. You’re better off unwritten, trust me.

Although I’d decided on a fun concept for sharing a character biography that I will attribute to Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn books, the plotting of the new novel Did Not Work. I was upset. I loved this character, and he needed a story. I was stuck, until my brilliant mother suggested I needed a pirate. The pirate was just what I needed, and it started to pull together. From the advice I’d compiled from the Internet, I decided to start at chapter 1 and go ’til the end.

…I made it to chapter 11 before I ran out of steam.

Things were getting off track. Things were getting boring. Molecular cohesion was starting to fail. And I was not happy.

Mom to the rescue again: “Hey Ace. Why don’t you try Michael A. Stackpole’s 21 Days to a Novel? You said it looked useful.”

Unsolicited Plug: 21 Days to a Novel is pure genius and should be in the hands of every writer to ever consider writing a novel. I don’t care if you don’t like the method, and I don’t care if you don’t like Stackpole’s writing. There are so many gems in that little guide, everyone should get something from it.

Somewhere around the start of grade 11, I used 21 Days to a Novel, basically repeating my initial plotting in a bit more depth, and restarted from chapter 1. I stole the occasional passage from my first pass, but mostly, I left it to rot. The chapters got thicker, yet tighter. There was description added. Character interactions became less ridiculous. The protagonist became less and less of a Gary Stu. And the chapters just kept coming, slow and steady. Somewhere along the line, I privately vowed to finish it by the end of grade 12. There was a tough part somewhere in the middle, (ironically, where the characters are travelling through some mountains) but I pushed past it. Suddenly, everything started to pick up like a locomotive rushing down a hill. Faster, faster, until I hit grade 12 exams and didn’t want to study because I was at chapter 33 and I was so close to the end I could taste it. Every waking moment demanded that I write.

I studied for my exams. It hurt, and it took up the month of June. But by August, I’d finished The Novel. Forty chapters—nice round number. 120K words. Editing has taken it down to 38 chapters and 117K words, but that’s beside the point. It was done before I started university, so I consider my vow for “the end of high school” kept.

It’s still undergoing editing (curse you again, University!), but initial response (from more than just my mother, thank you) is very positive and some day in the not-too-distant future, it will be ready for the next step. Oh boy, is that something to both dread and anticipate.

Ha! And it only took quitting over ten different times—from full projects to project attempts to writing itself—to get me there. Not to mention the individual chapters I quit on and rewrote up to four times before I was happy enough with them to continue the story while in the middle of the process.

I hope you were motivated, or learned something, or at the very least enjoyed laughing at my expense. On another note, after quitting another novel for wont of extensive research, I am 20% through Novel the Second, although I’m not sure I’ll finish it before I’m out of University. Perhaps before I earn my P. Eng?

Going off to write more exciting stuff now,

A. C. F.

 

Why I Like Blood

Well, that title probably reflects poorly on me. Allow me to explain.

There are different ratings of film: G, PG, 14A (PG-13), and 18A (R). Let’s ignore the ones after that, they don’t matter for this article. Having watched Die Hard, my favourite Christmas movie at the time of writing this, as well as starting to watch Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and finishing Baccano! I find the action scenes of these three things far more interesting and artistic than those in the many PG-13 superhero movies floating around. I’ve always loved 80’s B movies as well, and have a tendency to bemoan the lack of fun R-rated movies around. It took a little while for me to figure out why, but the answer is pretty simple, and it didn’t use to be restricted to R movies.

Blood. Buckets and buckets of blood.

Watching it spray and flow, drip and coat things is fascinating. It’s artistic. It also adds another layer of pain to the fight that can’t be gotten any other way.

Superhero movies do use blood, but sparingly. They want to retain their PG-13 rating. And showing Phil Coulson’s stabbing with the same flood of blood that Brotherhood uses for *that one spoiler scene that makes you sob, you know the one,* would utterly destroy that PG-13 rating. PG-13 is, by definition, not allowed to show blood. Gore, yes. Blood, no. It would also make that death very, very believable, since most people understand pretty well that when the red stuff is outside of your body, it’s bad news. It gives a sort of countdown timer to the scene as the puddle gets larger. You can also use it to cover special mementos. Again, this was attempted with Coulson’s stabbing, but carried through better in *that Brotherhood scene* as you see the blood as it coats the object in the latter, not the former.

Blood adds depth to injuries. When John McClane gets his feet shredded by glass, seeing the blood leaking out of them makes the injuries feel that much more serious. It’s easier to imagine the sort of pain he must be feeling, since you can imagine the pain if you were leaking a fraction of that blood. It makes it feel serious. Watch the Princess Bride again. If you haven’t ever watched it, get on that. It’s a fantastic movie. My point is that during Inigo’s fight with Count Rugen, he receives injuries that create slowly widening stains on his clothes. It makes his struggle to regain his strength in the fight that much more visceral, and it makes perfect sense when he staggers out of the room. He’s bleeding, for goodness sake! Remove the blood and you remove the urgency of the scene.

The Shonen battle genre is a bit of an outlier when it comes to ratings. Typically, these creations are at the lower rank of 14A, but they overdose on the amount of blood involved. This is due to the artistic nature of blood. As a mangaka once admitted, streaks of blood on the main character’s face make for more interesting and dynamic panels. It adds to the contrast available. This is all true. Blood near the eyes looks very interesting. This is why they love to do so in pretty much every fight. The more serious the fight, the more lovely blood spray it must include. It does indeed get to the point where you question the amount of blood there can be in one person, but I’m not going to worry about that. Because of its easily visible colour, it is to water what lightning is to electricity or what explosions are to a campfire. They’re all so very beautiful.

Baccano! is, well…let’s just say there can be a reason that an animated show is rated 18A that doesn’t include crude humour or sex. Punching someone’s head to mush or dragging someone along train tracks while in a moving train are both incredibly disturbing in a way that wouldn’t work without the blood spray shown. Even though both of these violent events are covered with discretion, mainly showing the spray onto the people enacting them, I could still hardly watch. Not to say I don’t recommend Baccano! to anyone who enjoys prohibition era or gangster style movies. I do. It’s fantastic, in both senses of the word. You should just be aware that it can go to the extreme in violence.

After noticing the fact that I like blood in film a lot, I also noticed the fact that I like to use blood in my writing. To make it really pop, I try to describe the feel, smell, and taste in an effort to have the reader connect with it. Describing the visual aesthetics can only take you so far in a non-visual medium.

I’m aware of those who can’t stand the sight of blood, even if I don’t really understand it all that well, and it’s perfectly reasonable for them to be able to avoid it in film if they want to. You don’t need blood to make a film good. I’m just suggesting that it can potentially add a little something extra that I tend to miss when it’s not there.

Just something to consider.

A. C. F.

Musical Terms Require Research, Too

You wouldn’t think so, would you? I mean, I’ve barely done anything more musical than choir, cannot read sheet music, and have even decided to forget proper singing form so that I can belt it out while driving and not feel self-conscious about it. I know barely anything about music.

And yet I have read in a published novel how a male character’s voice rose two octaves in a shout due to the stress of the situation. The hero, in fact. I have also read about a “boy’s soft alto” and people’s voices dropping an octave or two when trying to be threatening.

STOP. You are going to break me. Not to mention what you’re going to do to all of my far more musically inclined friends.

For basic reference: don’t talk about even one octave unless you’re referring to nut shots, hysterics, demonic possession, or extreme puberty. Consider “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The difference between “Some” and “where” is one octave. And you want your character’s voice to raise or drop two of those?! That is an incredible vocal range. Most people can only cover two octaves in total while singing, and remember that your speaking voice is right around the middle of your range.

Speaking of vocal range: alto is for girls. The one above tenor for boys is countertenor. Wikipedia has a lovely page on voice type that explains the difference and gives you plenty of options to choose from.

Yes, I understand that words related to music sound really good. They’re mostly Italian, what did you expect? Latin-based words always sound good. But that is no excuse for having your hero either scream like a little girl or suddenly turn into James Earl Jones just because you don’t know what an octave entails.

If you want to describe a specific voice (or other) sound effect in musical terms, please just double check that you know what the word means. I do, again because I have friends who play a bajillion different instruments. Consider how many people you know of who have at least dabbled in music like I have, and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about when I say that music is something you are not allowed to screw up on in any context other than a tone deaf, rhythm-less first-person narrator. So if you don’t know much about something, research it before you start throwing around its technical terms.

Whew. Slightly less annoyed now.

A. C. F.

Jack and the Haunted House Study

*NOTE: This was originally the second half of the post “Suspense with Respect to Horror.

Before I pick the specific episode apart piece by piece, I recommend that you watch this episode, as well as the rest of Samurai Jack. No, really, go watch it. I’m going to deconstruct practically every single second of this episode.

The episode in question is the 9th episode of season 3 of Samurai Jack titled Episode XXXV and commonly known as “Jack and the Haunted House.” It opens on a forest at night, complete with crickets and creaking tree limbs. A full moon illuminates Jack’s path as a breeze wraps around him. Jack looks uncomfortable, and is paying a lot of attention to the noises around him. Jack is normally very calm (the benefits of prior character development), and we wonder why he has reason to be tense. An unsettling atmosphere has been successfully created.

Jack continues on a little more quickly, pausing at a tree when a bird calls out. He scans his surroundings, his gaze passing over a small cloaked figure that blends into the background, and for the first time that episode we hear music. The music for this episode is all rather low and disjointed, which is disturbing. It sounds wrong, and we still haven’t seen anything that proves there is something wrong.

Jack looks back at the lump, and begins to approach. We hear the sounds of a little girl crying, and see the cloaked figure holding a stuffed toy. Jack pauses behind her and says, “Excuse me.”

A jump scare is used as a close up of the figure’s eyes is shown, which is followed immediately by a shot of them running away, leaving the stuffed toy on the ground as the footsteps fade away. This is not a pointless jump scare, however, because that is not normal behaviour for a little girl. We don’t know why she (it?) is acting this way, and it adds to the sense of wrongness.

Jack, even though he is as confused as we are, nice guy that he is, picks up the toy and calls after her to wait. She doesn’t listen, and he runs after her. The music builds until he emerges on a hill in the forest, with a clear view of a Japanese mansion on another nearby hill. He stops, staring at the dark, backlit, angular building, then glances at the toy, and continues onward.

A caveat: Jack has been trained to face the personification of evil that currently rules the world for his whole life, and has frequently come close to defeating it. Him not just bugging out is because of his desire to help others and his confidence (justified) in his skills, rather than idiocy. He’s the type of guy that runs into burning buildings when there’s the possibility of someone being trapped in them. Why would he do any differently this time?

The music quiets again as he continues through the orchard surrounding the mansion, shadows passing over his face from the branches overhead. He reaches the base of the stairs to the mansion, where the solid front door, slightly open, creaks as it is closed by the figure. All of this detail, lengthening his approach to the mansion, gives us more time to anticipate the wrongness we are now expecting to come to fruition, and builds the suspense.

Even more detail is provided to us as the music cuts out completely and he walks up the stairs. We get to hear every creak of every step, until the railing breaks beneath his hand. The mansion certainly appears ill-kept. Abandoned. As with most buildings, the concept of no one being inside of it makes you wary of entering. The fact that we just saw someone go inside it is dissonant, and (you guessed it) builds up the sense of wrongness.

At the front door, Jack considers entering that way, but sees a moth flit to the side, almost seeming to beckon him, and decides to follow it. Cautiously, he peaks around the corner of the house before approaching the shogi doors on the side, where the moth continues to lead him. Again, we hear the boards creak under his weight as every step of his approach is shown. Light is coming from the doors, and we see the shadow of a woman kneeling before a fire. Gentle but not particularly soothing music plays.

Jack touches the door with the intention of opening it, and we get our second jump scare. Moths come out of the house. A frankly ridiculous number of moths, that all fly toward the moon and disappear in its light. This one comes with no music, just the sound of flapping wings. The light we had just seen inside the house can no longer be seen. Again, I would argue that it is not pointless, bringing up more questions than answers and reinforcing the abandoned status of the mansion. Why were there so many in one place? That’s not normal. And why were they trying so hard to, dare I say it, escape?

Jack is a bit freaked out by the moths, and reaches slowly for the shogi doors again. Another moth comes out, and he settles his nerves to slide open one door abruptly. There is nothing there but a few more moths and a statue, its face hidden in shadow while one hand is raised over the offering plate held in the other.

I’m going to go on a slight tangent here. That statue does literally nothing all episode, but you cannot comprehend just how much it disturbs me. I think it has to do with never seeing the face, and so never knowing exactly what I’m looking at, but I swear that it is one of the most disturbing parts of the episode for me. It’s obviously a religious artifact, so maybe it’s the concept that the god or goddess these people prayed to couldn’t help them that gets to me. Or perhaps I somehow think that the god or goddess is directly responsible for whatever happened in some way. Whatever the reason, the statue is incredibly disquieting to me, and other than its shadowed face, I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps you can discover why for yourself.

Jack enters the room, and accidentally kicks a small copper pot. The pot rolls across the floor, clanging, until slowing and coming to rest at the foot of the statue. It jars the nerves. And it is followed by something even more jarring.

The animation changes to a blotchy black and white, and we see a hand placing an incense stick into the pot. It’s some kind of vision that Jack has gotten of the past. He doesn’t know what to think of it.

This vision and the ones that follow could be considered a form of pay off, but they don’t actually spend any of the suspense that has been built up. This first in particular shows you that someone used to live there, but nothing else. It isn’t really a jump scare, and again, it raises more questions than answers. How and why did it just happen? It can’t be a warning; there was nothing significant in it. It is strange, and like the rest of the episode so far, the strangeness is a sign of the wrongness gathering on the horizon.

Jack approaches the pot, and reaches to pick it up, when an area next to him creaks unexpectedly. A demolished table there cues another vision, this time of bonsai trees being swept by some destructive force.

Jack is getting very tense, and so is the audience. He cautiously gets up, studying the next room suspiciously. A creak sounds from the dark corner he is studying, and he moves some debris out of the way in order to proceed. A candle that has been sliced in half is the source of another brief vision, this one showing the woman who had been in the shadow on the shogi door being approached by an unseen something and screaming before the sliced candle drops to the floor. Again, not really showing much other than someone lived there, they were attacked, and they are no longer there. It’s the way in which it is done, leaving the source of the horror a mystery by showing the visions from its perspective. Is it still there? Obviously it is, considering the episode name, but we have seen no sign of it, other than the visions. We don’t know what, or why, or how, and only vaguely when any of this happened, and the not knowing is starting to get to us.

Jack shakes the vision away and lights a piece of the candle, returning to the first room to study the abandoned and cobweb filled areas. Creaks sound on odd occasions, and we haven’t heard any music since he walked away from the pot. The lack of music is almost worse than having unsettling music at this point. It’s not something you would normally notice, but the absence makes everything feel just a little bit more disconcerting.

Jack hears a creak from an upper floor, and raises the candle toward it. It gets blown out by…a draft, I suppose, and the smoke wafts toward a different set of shogi doors. The music returns, and I am sorry I ever missed it, since the ambient, dissonant hums only make things more disturbing. The room contains a set of stairs to one side, and a trap door prominently in the foreground. If you’ve seen anything related to horror before, you’re probably screaming inside to avoid the trap door.

Not to worry. Jack scouts out the room a bit, examining a model boat that triggers another vision. A young man is carefully painting the model, when something between a roar and a whistling gust of wind is heard from the trapdoor. The trapdoor is blasted open, and we are treated to the evil-thing-o-vision heading up through the trapdoor, straight for the young man’s terrified face.

Jack drops the boat and rubs his head, getting frustrated with these visions. He looks over at the trapdoor before edging along the far wall back to the door he came in by, only taking his eyes off the trapdoor to run out of the room. Cue shot of trapdoor overlaid with creepy ambient music, which is standard, but works this time by giving you time to think. Your first thought is one of relief. “Oh thank goodness, he didn’t open the creepy trapdoor where the thing was.” Thought two is the disturbing one. “But if it got out in that vision of the past…is it really still down there?”

Jack goes to a different set of stairs and sees the figure he was chasing at the start at the top. He runs up them, reaching an abandoned upper room with windows. He searches it, but finds no one. He tries to convince the probably-a-little-girl to come out, but when she doesn’t, he sets her toy on the mantle with every intention of leaving. He is distracted by the painting above the mantle, showing a man on a horse shooting at a number of dark animalistic blobs. He gets a vision of a rider under a cloudy sky, who was apparently also attacked by the thing. Fed up, he says goodbye and turns to leave.

Footsteps patter behind him, and he turns to see the toy gone from the mantle. A shape is seen ducking behind a chair, and the music picks up with one of Samurai Jack’s more standard battle rhythms as he drags the figure out from behind the chair to reveal…an adorable little girl.

For reference, we are just about halfway through the episode, and only now are we getting a bit of pay off from the start. You don’t really get much time to feel good about this reveal, though, because she asks in a voice that is both cute and creepy, “Did I scare you?” Jack’s “Um…no” in response is probably only true for him. He starts asking about the house that has been freaking him out, if she has been living there, and the little girl immediately starts crying again. Jack asks what is wrong, but she claims that it’s nothing. Nope, not a bad sign at all.

The music starts up again as Jack and the girl both look around suddenly, as if something is there. Jack suggests that they leave. As Jack says, “I think we have been here too long already,” the metaphorical animation camera focuses on a close up of the very demonic eyes of a dog in the painting over the mantle, which seem to be looking straight out at them and possibly seeing them.

Jack hauls the little girl downstairs, intending to take her back to the shogi doors he came in by. He uses the statue as a landmark, its face still shadowed even when he lifts the candle towards it, and as mentioned before, it disturbs me. Jack is cheerfully detailing to the girl all the good things about the outside, and encounters a literal brick wall. Understandably, he freaks out, saying, “What is this? There was a door here!” The little girl just looks up at him, then away again, and he stops yelling.

He very quickly hauls her back upstairs, trying for the windows and finding another solid wall. The unknown evil is irrevocably starting to take action. Jack freaks out about the windows the same way he did about the door, but is interrupted by the little girl crying. He takes a breath and calms down, trying to understand what is happening but failing. The girl says that she is tired and cold, and Jack suggests that yes, sleep would be a good idea.

Commercial break!

We come back from commercial with some seizure-inducing visions. They include colour-shifting images of specific features of the house, of a sketchy Jack in trouble, and of a something. A something with a snout and claws and teeth. You only see it very briefly, but it’s not really something you want to see again.

Jack wakes up, and finds the little girl gone, her blanket left behind. He starts to walk elsewhere in search of her, when he hears music. Nice, legitimately soothing music. It’s coming from a well-lit doorway, which Jack approaches, battle-ready. He sees a clean, well kept room where the little girl and what must be her family sit, drinking tea.

It is the most unsettling part of the episode. This is so far from what is expected that your mind can’t keep from screaming how wrong it all is. It cannot be real, you think in disbelief. There is no way this can be real. It doesn’t help that you recognize the mother, older brother, and father from Jack’s visions.

Jack agrees with the audience on that count, demanding to know what is going on, what kind of illusion this is. He is quite hostile, even drawing his sword, as the father very kindly tries to talk him down and offers him tea. He even offers a matrix-like choice: “Drink the tea if you don’t believe we are real.” He introduces his family, and everyone is very calm and polite. Jack has trouble staying hostile, likely because of the familiarity of such a scene and the loneliness he’s had to deal with since being flung out of his own time. He drinks the tea.

Tea is evidently the way to his heart (unsurprising, given how much of it we’ve seen him drink previously in the series), and he sits down with them, chatting about where the tea came from. Jack asks about the state of the house, and the father quite obviously doesn’t have an answer. “There was a storm,” his wife offers nervously. The father agrees with a smile, saying that they’ve tried to make the best of things, turning to his son for agreement.

This is where the nightmare begins to be fully realized, and all that suspense that was built up pays off.

The son doesn’t answer, his eyes starting to roll back into his head. The father tries to laugh it off as shyness, sweating all the while, and prompts his son to talk about his studies instead. The boy shakes, and the pupils that where half-hidden behind his upper eyelids roll back even further to leave his eyes completely white. The room around Jack flickers in colour. The son starts foaming at the mouth, and the mother isn’t far behind him. The father laughs faintly again, still sweating, and tries to claim it as illness. All the while, that gentle music is still playing. The little girl says, “I’m sorry,” and even the music begins to skip, slowing down and distorting until it is gone. The father also succumbs to the “illness” while the illusion of the room continues to flicker. Jack jumps away, horrified, as the room changes back to a destitute wreck. The little girl runs away to hide behind a pot. Black, blotchy evil begins to pour out of the other family member’s mouths, merging in midair to reveal the monster.

There is more to the episode, but it’s all pay off, and that’s not what this post is about. Even though the episode continues to do so in a way that supports small scale suspense, the main breakdown is complete.

A. C. F.

Suspense With Respect to Horror

When someone suggests I check out a horror movie, I usually hem and haw briefly before saying that the horror genre just isn’t something I enjoy.

This is a lie. Mostly.

The problem I have with many horror movies is lack of suspense. Also, protagonist idiocy, but let’s focus on lack of suspense here. Without suspense, horror is usually gore for the sake of gore. If I’m watching a gore movie, I prefer it to be in the vein of “Shoot ‘Em Up”; ridiculousness with a side of testosterone, rather than something that’s just gross. When it’s not gore for the sake of gore, weak and dragging subplots can fill the space that should have been devoted to suspense. I tune out of these quickly.

What is suspense? The dictionary defines it as a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as from awaiting a decision or outcome. In terms of a horror story, I consider it to be a build up of expectation that something is wrong, without specifically showing anything to be wrong. This is where American Horror Story’s sixth season failed with me. I had agreed to try out Roanoke with a few friends, but fairly early on, the show jumped from what I considered to be a good build up of suspense (my, that’s a creepy window she’s doing yoga in front of all alone) straight to low level payoffs, such as teeth hail. (Teeth hail. Teeth. Hail. I couldn’t help but imagine some poor stage hand on the roof shaking a bucket of teeth.) The teeth disappear, which should play to my fears of being unable to trust my own perceptions a lot, but without any subtle hints that perceptions couldn’t be trusted at that point in the series, building suspense, it just feels like a fake out, rather than proof that something is really wrong.

That’s something to be aware of. Suspense is like a currency, which is why pointless jump scares tend to make these types of films weaker. Jump scares convert the sensation of general wrongness to “something bad is happening right now.” When that belief proves to be a lie, some of your currency has been spent without adding to the sense of unease or wrongness.

There are other ways to cheapen the suspense you’ve tried so hard to build. One that should be obvious immediately is to NOT use foreshadowing. No more than the vaguest hints should be given, since you very specifically do not want your reader to solve the problem early. Horror suspense is driven by the unknown danger, and that unknown is usually the scariest part of the entire story. The mystery is what keeps you on edge. So why would you provide the audience a deliberate clue about what is going to happen?

There are a number of movies where the monster is foreshadowed or directly shown, so that what the characters are up against doesn’t come out of left field. There are other movies that set up a Chekov’s gun for future defeat of the monster. There are some that undergo both. Usually, when this happens, the suspense of the story is over because the mystery is gone. The reveal needs to be exceptionally disturbing in order to overcome that, and it rarely is.

It comes down to timing. The longer you can hold off any reveals, the longer you can build suspense.

Keep in mind that knowing what the monster is doesn’t necessarily detract from the unknown portion of the horror, even when the monster is a human. Consider the movie “Alien.” It’s about a random alien monster that a mining ship accidently picks up in outer space. Even so, you don’t know any of the rules it functions by. You don’t know if it’s intelligent enough to have motivations beyond eating them. You don’t know what can kill it, nor do you know what it looks like. You know it’s an alien monster, but that’s all you know. The alien remains terrifying.

Contrast “Pitch Black,” the first Riddick movie. The capabilities of these aliens are established pretty early. The suspense in this case comes from the knowledge that they don’t have the tools to survive, and that they just might kill each other instead. This movie follows more of the thriller format of building suspense than the horror format; the difference between them is a positive/negative thing. Thriller suspense builds up, “How are they possibly going to do that?” while horror suspense asks, “What’s going to go wrong next?” One builds to a solution; the other builds towards a defeat.

Back on track: that is a concept of how suspense is built, but execution is everything in this case. To understand the mechanics of suspense, I’d recommend watching almost anything by Hitchcock. In particular, I found Vertigo, Psycho, Suspicion, and Rope to use suspense to their full advantage. As mentioned before, Alien is also very suspenseful.

Surprisingly, one of the best suspense sequences I’ve seen was from an episode of a children’s cartoon—well, as much as Samurai Jack can be considered a children’s cartoon. The show is about a prince of feudal Japan flung thousands of years into an anarchist future ruled by the embodiment of evil he has been trained to defeat. It is well done, and I recommend it. You can find a study of the episode in question here.

 

“But how does any of that help me write suspense?” you ask. “I don’t have any sound cues or timing choices or even any creepy visuals like that statue I can throw in with the written word.”

Well, you do and you don’t. Instead of timing choices, you have pacing. You can describe things in minute detail, and thereby stretch out the time it takes for the reader to get up the stairs, as it were. You can describe the chill from the slight wind as you leave the trees behind. You can describe the sharpness of the moon shadows that make it seem as if you’re walking precariously on many thin poles. You can expound on the creaking of each step, and how they all give just a little more than you’re comfortable with under your weight. You’ll have to figure out where to draw the line so that you don’t go overboard and convince the reader to just skip your lengthy description, though.

Instead of music and sound cues, you have word choice. I don’t recommend breaking out the mauve paint, but do break out your thesaurus and find a few of the more off-putting words in existence. Nacreous, for example. Moist works as well in the right context. You’re just going to have to find the right words, which is part of why it’s so important to pay attention to how your work sounds.

In place of creepy visuals, you’ll have to substitute your character’s emotions and your descriptions again. The right turn of phrase can let you imagine that creepy statue almost as perfectly as it can be visually portrayed.

Finally, since you are writing, you would be better served to give your monster the ability to knowingly enact a fate worse than death, rather than just having it look horrifying or kill people. Because you are writing, having the concept be the most horrifying aspect of the monster plays to your strengths. For example, a race of malicious shadow demons that intend to devour the world (Into the Out Of, Alan Dean Foster) is more terrifying to me than dinosaurs doing what dinosaurs do. Even in Jurassic Park, there is a reason why the intelligent raptors are scarier than the unthinking tyrannosaur.

A couple of final recommendations. First, I’d recommend writing from front to back. I find this helpful all the time, but if you’re writing from start to finish directly, you’ll be more likely to organically ramp up the suspense of your story, which can only make it better. Second, as I’ve basically harped on this entire post, nuance is preferable to blatancy in building suspense. Once you’re working on the payoff, feel free to go nuts on being blunt, but mystery maketh suspense of the horror kind.

I don’t claim to be an expert on suspense. These are all based on my own observations and thoughts on the subject. I made an effort at it myself in writing “Reflections.” All in all, I’m not sure how well I actually did at that. This is definitely a case of easier said than done, and requires the dreaded “practice” to perfect. Feel free to follow the link to my story and check it out to see how much you should scoff at how completely inexpert I am.

Happy All Hallows’ Eve! Don’t let the plants eat you, nor the transvestites cut you up for spare parts, and whatever you do don’t sign a contract with Death Records.

A. C. F.

A New Old Story

I finally had a moment to edit this one. It’s been sitting around for a few months now.

Unmalleable Time” is a story that arose from my love of pocket watches and a few random prompt words.

There’s really nothing more to say about that. So, news on Novel the Second! It’s turned darker than expected, but I believe it will still be enjoyable. It’s certainly a challenge. I’m currently working on chapter five, writing it in a notebook to later transcribe. I’ve been writing about 10 words at a time between lectures. If you look at the side, you’ll see that at least 10K words are written. Progress!

안녕

A. C. F.

I’m out of my mind

You remember this post? It mentioned that I had written a short story that could easily double as Chapter 1 of Novel the Second.

I have finished the outline for Novel the Second. To celebrate this, I have put the counter that probably none of you remember back on the sidebar of the site. Note: the estimated final word count is just that, an estimate. It is subject to change in the future.

Why I say that I am out of my mind, is because engineering courses don’t leave a lot of room for anything. Working full time for my co-op terms is a vacation in comparison. And in this sort of intense, high stress course, I’m going to add the stress and distraction of writing on top of this. Genius. You can see how I’ve managed to get as far as I have in life.

So, the rough draft probably won’t be finished before 2021. The counter on the side may even move backwards. None of this matters, because I do writing for the love of it, and only for the love of it. Yes, I would like to be published, but it isn’t a high priority for me. Graduating is. It ties into the phrase, “don’t quit your day job,” some of the soundest advice ever given. I agree that it is probably hard to think about how to demonstrate a character’s mistake in a sympathetic manner when you have to write the scene on the back of your overdue hydro bill.

In summary: I am writing another novel. Yay! I am going to have a lot of fun with this, and probably stretch my abilities even further. It is not a priority because school.

To the writing!

A. C. F.

Scamming the Scammers

My parents usually get quite a number of phone scammers, of both the Windows and CRA variety. To amuse themselves, they’ve come up with a number of ways to get back at them. These are a few of the ways:

 

1) The classic.`

“Hello, we’re calling about your Windows computer—“

“I have a Mac.”

Mom doesn’t, in fact, have a Mac, but it’s too good a line to pass up.

 

2) Deliberate misinterpretation.

“Hello, we’re calling about your Windows computer—“

“I know it’s bad. You’ll have to talk to the landlord. He is responsible for all the windows; I’m not allowed to do anything with them.”

“No, sir, we’re not talking about the windows in your house. We’re talking about your Windows operating system—“

“You’re just going to have to talk to the landlord. It says in the agreement that I can’t do anything about them.”

“Sir. Sir, do you have a computer?”

“Yes, I have a computer.”

“We’re talking about the Windows system on your—“

“I keep telling you, the landlord is responsible for the windows. I really want to do something about them, but I’m not allowed to—“

“Sir—“

…it’s my understanding that this went on for a while before one of them decided to hang up.

 

3) Klingon

“Hello, is this Mr. Franklin?”

“Uncted instigs locathm. Procks wumungump sepolololo. N-no speakada Anglich. No Aanglich.”

“Sir? Is there someone there that speaks English?”

“Pele katunk pharat podonkul weritla ga. Noo Anglich. Ferpu tyg derad coboco pyta.”

“Sir? Sir? Can you give the phone to someone there who speaks English?”

“No Aanglich. Notoctes grinju derutu kapolu sitpro gredfur gopotcle nor.”

“Does anybody know what this guy is saying? I don’t speak this language!”

“Gutubi ported sufugu ni. Rupesed tracud fulupo P’tak!” *Click*

…I know it’s not real Klingon, but that last word is the clincher.

 

4) Too late

“Mrs. Franklin, this is the CRA.”

“I don’t know why you’re calling me. You are supposed to be talking to my lawyer.”

“Uh…”

You’ve already frozen all of my accounts and seized all my assets. There’s nothing left. Talk to my lawyer!”

“…you’re bankrupeted?”

“It is what it is.”

At which point the scammer hung up.

 

5) You’ve reached a scam. (My dad’s done this one three times already. He really likes it.)

“Hello, is this Mr. Franklin?”

“Hello, you’ve reached George’s custom luggage! All our luggage is currently on sale. First, let’s start with your credit card number—“

The scammer always hangs up first.

 

I’ve come up with a new one for them, which I term the “Bible thumper.” For the Windows scam, just start going on and on about how computers are the tool of the devil, the day of judgement is coming and they need to renounce their false idols. Start to pray with them. The challenge is to see how long it takes them to hang up. We’ll see if we get a chance to use it.

A. C. F.