A Sense of Foreboding

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What’s This Got to Do With Anything?)

The protagonist approaches the dark and strange mansion, seeking shelter after her car has broken down on a lonely stretch of the highway. In the darkness she doesn't spot a crow lurking in the rafters until the bird swoops right over her head, cawing loudly! She screams in surprise, but a moment later scoffs at herself for being so jumpy. She pushes the door inward and it creaks loudly on hinges that haven't been used for years. She has a moment of hesitation, but then presses forward, into the mansion's darkened hall.

When I was a teenager the local television network would show an old monster movie or horror film every Friday. And not high-production classics, either, but the low-budget, small cast, horribly written, obviously fake effects, filmed in one location sort of movies that 40s and 50s horror cinema was overflowing with.

And all the time these movies would start with a scene like the one I described above. Even before the actual antagonist was unveiled, some strange and startling event would happen, something that had absolutely nothing to do with all the rest of the story, but which made it abundantly clear that the protagonists were entering a place of evil.

And this sense of dread foreboding occurs even in quality pieces of storytelling, too. Consider the very first lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

...

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

What does it matter that this takes place at midnight, that it is a dreary night, or that it is in the middle of “bleak December?” Absolutely nothing. These details don’t directly tell us anything about the characters or plot. Everything that transpires could still have been done with all these factors left entirely unmentioned.

But no one would say that these little details are unimportant. Perhaps they have nothing to do with the broader narrative, but they have a great deal to do with setting the atmosphere and the reader’s expectations. They make us understand that we are to view all the following events in a grim and dreary light. Not only does this get us into the proper frame of mind, it also prevents us from misinterpreting later moments, such as this:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,”

When we first meet the titular raven our narrator greets him in a jovial manner, finding its small sternness comical. But we, the audience, do not make the same mistake. Because of the grim foreboding at the start of the story we know to be wary of this solemn specter. The character may mistake his guest, but we receive the story beats in the correct context.

Double Duty)

But is it possible for an introductory scene to not only set the mood, but also deliver narrative or setup plot? Let’s consider the very first scene in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. We open on trees rustling in the dead of night, and a group of heavily armed workers staring unblinking at whatever it is that’s approaching.

A moment later the trees give way to a forklift carrying a large crate, which is lowered to a paddock. All the workers move to open the gate and let whatever is inside of the box transfer into its new home. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan, as the dinosaur inside bolts against the gate, causing the crate to shift away, creating an opening through which it grabs one of the workers. Everyone panics and starts zapping at the creature with their stun batons, but the man who was grabbed is killed before the thing is subdued.

There is only one character in this entire scene that appears later in the film, and his dialogue does not depend on us having seen the event. The story really only starts in earnest after this mood-setting piece is complete.

But that isn’t to say that this piece has nothing to do with the narrative. In fact it does. We are soon told that the accident caused the park’s investors to become anxious about the risk involved with the project, and that they have demanded for a team of specialists review the facility before it opens. This, of course, leads to our main characters being brought in to see the park before it officially opens. Thus this first scene is setting the mood, but it is also laying the groundwork for all the narrative.

Making a Shift)

The use of foreboding imagery can also be used to alert the audience that there is going to be a shift in tone. Maybe everything seems calm and easy now, but don’t expect things to stay that way for long. The opening shot of Alien is a slow pan over the command modules of a futuristic spaceship. Everything is calm, everything is quiet, but suddenly there is a flash of light and screech of noise as an incoming transmission breaks the silence.

It’s a startling moment, which might seem entirely unnecessary. The entire first act is a lengthy sequence where the crew follows standard procedure to investigate a distress call, and they are all extremely nonchalant about the whole affair. But because of that introductory startle, the audience knows that things are not going to remain this relaxed for long. They are anticipating the shift into horror even before the menace of the movie arrives.

And I’ll be going for this sort of effect with the first half of my new story on Wednesday. The piece is going to begin in a very grounded, very mundane place. But I want to prepare the reader for the supernatural events that come in the second half, so I’m going to craft a startling moment for my protagonist. A bird will swoop close overhead with a loud screech, a foreteller of dramatic changes yet to come.

Just a Little Innocent Manipulation

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Cunning Little Devils)

Eddie Mannix should not take the new job offer from the Lockheed Corporation. He should retain his faith in the magic of cinema instead, for the silly stories they make in their studios really do make a difference in the lives of those that view them, and he must never forget that fact.

These are the great truths in the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, and I can pick out the solitary scene where I became completely convinced of them. It happened about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Mannix was tempted once more by the Lockheed executive to leave behind the “kid stuff” of Hollywood for a real job.

Up until this moment the Lockheed executive has seemed to have some valid points, but then he does something undeniably slimy. In a previous meeting he offered Mannix a cigarette, to which Mannix had responded by saying he was trying to quit. Quitting the unhealthy habit is important to his wife, to his family that he cares for, and a way that he genuinely wants to improve himself. Here, in their later meeting, the Lockheed executive can see that Mannix is conflicted, and once again offers a cigarette with a knowing smile.

Just like that all of the valid points of the Lockheed executive become only the cunning arguments of a devil. This man does not have Mannix’s best interests at heart at all. He is willing to compromise and manipulate him, to use the man’s weakness against him in the guise of friendship. Mannix turns him down. Turns him down for the smoke, turns him down for the job. I cheered him on for it, and I bought into the same realization that he did at that moment: that the make-believe of movies is more real than all the cynicism of the “real world.”

But then, as I thought about it, hadn’t I just been manipulated myself? The movie wanted me to feel a certain way about Mannix’s choice between dreams and practicality, and so it had intentionally cast the voice of practicality in a body that was slimy and conniving. Couldn’t it have used the same trick in the opposite direction and just as easily persuaded me the other way?

Devils in Angel’s Clothing?)

Now let’s bring in Exhibit B: George Bailey. This man is the main character of It’s a Wonderful Life, and he finds himself caught in a very similar conundrum as Eddie Mannix. All his life he has burned with an intense desire to chase his dreams, to build wonders, to travel the world. But unlike Mannix, he is not actually living that dream. At each step practicality has gotten in his way instead. Duty to family and friends has kept him far from the life he wishes to lead, and he’s grown very depressed as a result.

Then, in the film’s final act, a charming little man appears to convince him that the life of wonder he’s always wanted has been in front of him all along. Clarence the angel is sweet, innocent, and loyal. He speaks with a simple, uncomplicated wisdom, and uses it to make clear the great benefit one accomplishes just by doing their duty.

Is it really so wrong to make sacrifices for your family after all?

By the end of the film George Bailey is convinced and so are we. The film’s best trick is temporarily severing him from the life that he had. The sudden loss of wife and children cuts both he and the audience very deep, and we rejoice with him when they are reunited. We want nothing more than for him to never lose them again.

And as with Hail, Caesar, we have been manipulated into agreeing with the film’s core thesis.

Bias, Bias Everywhere)

So…each of these films manipulate our emotions to get us to agree with their message. But honestly, if we’re going to take offense at that, then we’re going to have to throw out essentially every story ever told.

Just consider how elements like swelling music in a film tugs at your heartstrings and makes you feel the emotions that the director wishes you to feel in that moment. Consider how Shakespeare’s heroes give a passionate soliloquy to win the audience over to their cause. Consider how the author lays bare their characters’ minds to prove the virtue or vice behind their actions. All of these make declarative statements of what is right to think about a situation, and what is wrong. Just as with real people, every story is going to have a bias, and to ask them not to is to to ask them not to be made by people.

Every now and then there is a story that tries to take a neutral stance, tries to show both sides of an argument equally. But even then there are biases towards what “equal” means.

Turn it Over to the Jury)

Any story that has a message is going to frame it in whatever way best supports that message. Some stories are going to have an overall message that you do not agree with, and are going to utilize character archetypes that you feel are incorrect and even harmful. And other stories will give an overall message that you do agree with, and utilizes character archetypes that you feel are fair and accurate.

But these are actually the exception. Far more common are the stories that will fall somewhere in between. Stories that you only partially agree with the message of, or that you do agree with, but still use archetypes that you still feel are incorrect and even harmful. I have read books and seen films that I liked every piece leading towards the central theme, but still did not like the central theme itself.

And this is fine.

People are not so delicate that they cannot handle mixed messages. You aren’t going to break someone by challenging their preconceived notions and you’re not required to coddle their every opinion. Every day people are exposed to conflicting opinions, and we have learned how to parse through the pieces, reject the ones we disagree with, and hold to the ones that we believe to be true.

In the moment we might feel that Hail, Caesar makes a good point, and we might feel that It’s a Wonderful Life makes a good point as well. But after we’ve had some time, been able to weigh them against our own conscience, we’ll still make our own decision on the matter. In fact, we might find that we can believe in a balance between both practicality and dreams.

And so I don’t feel guilty that in my last story I influenced the reader to reject the father’s ideals by painting him in a negative light. That was my archetype to support my central message, and you can take or reject it as you feel fit. On Thursday I will post the first entry in my new story, and in that chapter you can bet I will already be casting my characters in positive and negative lights, trying to influence you to side with some and against others. Pay attention to how I do that, and also consider how you are doing the same in your own stories.

Giving Out Information

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On Thursday I posted the second part of Instructions Not Included, at the end of which I noted that some readers will see more significance in the discoveries being made by the main protagonist, Gavin, then he will. Gavin is a bright child, but he still has a lot of education and life experience ahead of him, which prevents him from seeing how his inventions fit into the bigger picture. I don’t believe readers will hold his ignorance against him, though, that ignorance is simply the story being true to his character.

If, however, Gavin had been written as a grad student at a University working on a PhD in molecular biology, things would be different. If he had had that background and still wasn’t seeing the deeper significance behind his discoveries, we would feel frustrated at him for not knowing the things that he should already know.  And this, in fact, is the first guiding principle for how how much knowledge a story’s protagonist should have of their own world.

 

Characters Should Know What They Should Know)

Though it sounds obvious, there are many stories that fail to write characters whose knowledge or intelligence is consistent with their background. Consider the common complaint of horror films that the behavior of their victims is stupid beyond plausibility. The average viewer will say “I would know not to split up when a serial killer is on the loose, so why don’t you know not to do that?!”

Now, to be fair, the author of the horror film probably isn’t ignorant of their subjects’ ignorance, they know perfectly well that their behavior is unbelievably stupid. The thing is that the horror story has a unique requirement. Its purpose is to make you, the audience member, face situations that you wouldn’t subject yourself to in real life. It is necessary for you to be dragged into a situation that is uncomfortable so that you will become jumpy.

And one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is just to halve the IQ of every main character. Now you are tethered to a moron that will make choices you would never make, and put you in situations you would never want to be in. It works…but it also leaves the viewer in a frustrating relationship with the film.

Of course characters shouldn’t be too intelligent either. A child can be precocious, but once their wisdom stretches the limits of plausibility they start to be annoying. I admit this is one area I am worried about with Gavin in my story. I believe it is plausible for him to be curious and experimental, but I am anxious as to whether his scientific testing goes a bit too far. In the end I’ve just had to make a judgment call, and it will be up to the individual reader whether I rendered him in an acceptable way or not.

 

Choose an Appropriate Perspective Character)

The obvious takeaway from the previous section should be that you need to choose your story’s perspective with care. And to be clear, your “perspective character” is not necessarily the same as your “main character.”

For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird the main character is “Scout” Finch as a young girl. The perspective character, though, is Scout many years later as a mature woman. The story is being told to us as something that happened quite some time ago. This construct skillfully avoids the pitfall of an overly-precocious child, because the social commentary comes from the mature version of Scout, not the childhood one. This is a wise choice, because the story deals with heavy themes, including racism and abuse, which young Scout simply doesn’t comprehend. The end result is we get a voice of wisdom on these matters, but without having our illusion of younger-girl Scout compromised.

Another example of careful selection in the perspective character can be found in Moby Dick. In this tale Captain Ahab is the protagonist, but the story is told through the lens of Ishmael. This setup is well-chosen, because it allows for us to witness Ahab’s insanity from the grounded perspective of a rational observer. In fact this approach adds an element of mystery because the exact depths of that insanity are only made known to us as they become apparent to Ishmael.

Once a perspective character has been chosen, then the author needs to be respect the union that has been made between that character and the audience. The audience expects to be this person in this world, and they won’t take kindly if that relationship is cheated.

 

Don’t Show Things to the Perspective Character and Not the Audience)

So what do I mean by cheating the relationship between the perspective character and audience? Once the reader has identified which character facilitates their view into the story they expect to be privy to everything that that character is. Furthermore, they expect to be kept ignorant of everything that that character is, too.

Let’s look at an example of this in the Sherlock Holmes. In these Doyle has chosen as his perspective character John Watson. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the star, but Watson is the one telling us things as he sees them. And Watson is extremely serviceable in this function. He is an intelligent man, but he is not the demigod of intuition than Holmes is. Watson observes only as much as the average audience members would observe if we were in these situations, and that allows us to be delightfully outsmarted by Holmes.

Take for example the often-repeated sequence where the great detective will reveal astounding things about a complete stranger, all deduced from the vaguest of clues. The audience is never frustrated with Watson for having overlooked those same clues, because they wouldn’t have noticed them either.

Sadly, though, this careful selection of the perspective character has somehow been lost on most film and television adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. In these the perspective has always been changed to be Holmes’s. In these shows and movies we hear Holmes thoughts, we zoom in on the object that he’s looking at, we see his problem-solving process firsthand. We don’t ever have these same insights for Watson, he is now just an unnecessary side-character.

This could still work out, but then the show/movie reach a climax with an ultimate revelation, one where Holmes pins the big badguy down by an amazing show of insightful perspective… And most often he does it by pointing to evidence that we never saw. Suddenly we feel cheated. Holmes revealing that he secured a clue while the camera was turned the other way is not impressive, it is insulting.

When we share the detective’s perspective, then we expect to be able to solve the case ourselves if we are intelligent enough to manage it. If they solve it and we do not, it needs to be because they were smarter than us, not because they had secret information. Again, it’s fine for them to have secret information if our perspective character was Watson, but not if it was Holmes.

 

Don’t Have a Character Perspective)

Of course another solution that some stories can employ is to just not give us a perspective character. Instead of seeing the tale unfold through one of its actor’s eyes we instead have the events recited to us by some omniscient narrator/author. In this setup the reader’s perspective is their very own selves. And here an interesting little development occurs.

From this setup it doesn’t matter so much what knowledge you do or don’t give to the reader, they will accept it. You can tell the story with the wisdom of a sage, or the petulance of a child. You can selectively withhold information, you can even tell the audience member that you are withholding information. You  can tell them one thing, and later tell them that you lied and really it was something else.

And all of this is okay.

Consider the film The Usual Suspects. This film is shown to us entirely in flashback, the events explained by a convict taken in for questioning. He is our narrator, and what he tells to us and the police is a complete lie. At the very end his deceit is revealed, but the audience feels satisfied rather than cheated. Why? Because we weren’t actually there when these supposed events were happening, we only ever heard about them secondhand. The film has not broken the relationship it established with us from the beginning.

There is clearly a lot of power possible in a story that has no character perspective, though the trade-off is that it can be harder for the audience to immerse themselves in the tale. An author will have to weigh these different strengths, and choose what is best for their own situation.

 

On Thursday I will be posting the third section of Instructions Not Included. The perspective in that tale has been a little mixed, the voice telling the story seems to be a dispassionate narrator, but the events are limited to only what Gavin sees. The audience is absorbing the same facts that he is and there is a small bit of Gavin’s mental process on display, but virtually nothing of his emotional state.

I have been alright with this so far, because this whole segment has been meant as the introductory chapter to a theoretical larger work. If this were ever part of a bigger story this would just be the introduction where the ground rules are established, and then the real character-driven plot would follow immediately afterward.

I’m going to start signaling that transition by reintroducing Gavin’s brother with this next section. His presence will require us to settle more firmly into Gavin’s perspective, just in time for the dramatic shift at the end of this sequence.

Hey, I’m Talking to You

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I remember a strange experience I had with communication several years ago. It was while I was at university, working as a Teaching Assistant and occasionally covering lessons for the Professor. One day while lecturing I had the distinct impression of the words emanating from my mouth, hanging in the air, and then falling to the ground, never being received by any of the class members. I didn’t blame the students for their blank expressions, I knew I was having trouble explaining the concepts in an intuitive and accessible manner. The words I was stringing together might have formed valid sentences, but to the class there was no meaning therein. All my life I had assumed the two (words and meaning) just automatically went together, now I knew they did not.

Ever since that day I have remembered that communication is composed of two halves, a giver and a receiver, and it simply does not occur when only one of those is present, or when the two are unable to meet on common ground. Similarly, though a written story may seem like a self-contained entity in-and-of itself, it is actually only a medium for communication, and therefore is forever incomplete if never opened, read, and understood. A story requires a meeting and comprehension between both a giver and a receiver, or else it is just words in a void with nowhere to go.

If you want the words of your story to go somewhere, to be picked up by an audience and internalized, then you have to know how to speak so that you can be heard. How you do that, depends first on deciding who your audience even is. There are multiple criteria by which you can filter the entire human population down to the subset your story is meant for, but there is one initial division that comes before all others. Are you writing for yourself, for one other, or for a group?

Writing for yourself is pretty straightforward, it means you are writing something that resonates with you, regardless of whether it resonates with anyone else. Perhaps you’ve thought of the book you wish you could be reading right now and, since it doesn’t exist, decided you’d create it yourself. Or maybe you’re just trying to process some personal drama, using your creativity to hash out all its possible permutations. You are speaking to your own hopes, your own fears, your own life situation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is writing for a group. Here you identify a grouping, defined perhaps by age, language, social status, or common interest, and you compose something that you think will appeal to that crowd. Perhaps the most prevailing reason for this approach is that you wish to ensure maximum profit potential for your book as a commercial product. Thus you begin by identifying which subset of society you can best sell to, and then write in the way most likely to catch their attention.

In between, though, there is the story written for one other. The story won’t necessarily be about the author’s greatest passion, nor is it composed to be marketable to the widest possible audience. This is a story that it is written for a friend, a family member, or maybe even a nemesis. Perhaps you are writing to a member of a particular societal clique, but you are addressing that member, not the clique as a whole. As such, it is more akin to our common day-to-day communications. Me speaking to you. When one adopts this more conversational approach to storytelling there are some unique and charming results that naturally occur.

First of all, whenever you speak directly to someone on their own terms, you’re fairly likely to succeed at getting their attention. When I come up with bedtime stories for my boy, I make sure to use language that is suited to his understanding and that focuses on his own interests. As a result, he seems to be much more engaged with these stories than with most of his printed-for-the-masses storybooks. The lack of this directness in for-the-masses media is a problem for many blockbuster movies and bestselling books today. Because they are intended to make the maximum profit possible, they have to appeal to the widest audience possible, which results in them being as generic and featureless as possible. Many stories are unwilling to say anything beyond the mundane and obvious, out of fear of alienating a potential subset of society, which gives them a far shorter staying power. Going back to the verbal communication analogy, this can feel like listening to a speaker at a conference, one who is speaking both to everyone and no one at the same time, versus the experience of having someone look you in the eye and say something to you. I think most of us would prefer that second situation, even if we didn’t end up agreeing with everything that was said. We’d certainly remember what was said for longer.

Well what about when a story is written for oneself? That’s certainly writing for a very focused audience, isn’t it? It is, but the communication you give to yourself is again different from the type you give to others. Unfortunately, we can be very hard on ourselves, criticizing our every flaw, and regretting that we aren’t the successes we wanted to be. I imagine this occurs because of all the emotions we’ve ever felt, negative ones most easily bubble to the surface. While drawing from this well of disappointment can certainly be a therapeutic way to process these feelings, it can also make for some pretty bleak stories. Why should the main character get a happy ending if it feels dishonest with my own life? But things change when we speak to others. While we may be very hard on ourselves, we can be very kind to those we love. We tend to assume the best of them and wish the best for them. When we design a story from that point-of-view, all we wish to communicate is dreams coming true, love being found, adventures being shared, and good triumphing over evil.

I’m currently working on a novel that had its genesis in one of those pessimistic self-talks. The original design of it called for a family of explorers to come to a new island and, by their hard work and patience, raise a flourishing trade and community from the wilds around them. And then a monster comes and kills them all. Comically bleak, isn’t it? But that was fitting, because it was some bleak emotions that I was processing and trying to convey. It all had something to do with how our human failings can destroy all that is beautiful around us. Then I started to think about how this would be received by anyone else reading the book. I have several friends who have faced human failings in their lives, and I wouldn’t want them to read a book like this and think it was condemning them. Ultimately I felt the message wasn’t for the greater good, and the ending changed accordingly. There is still a monster, and it still seeks to destroy, but the story now suggests that it can be defeated by the very beauty it is trying to ravage, and innocence can be reclaimed.

Winnie-the-Pooh, The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Thomas the Tank Engine. Some of our most timeless tales and characters have come as a result of an author crafting a story for a specific individual. These stories are book-sized wishes for their readers to have lives as full of adventures and hopes as are contained within the tale. They are immortalized communications of love, given and received decades ago, yet ever fresh and new.

Of course, I do not mean to disparage the other types of audience a story can be written for, they each have their own pros and cons. I do feel, though, that this more direct and conversational form of story-communication too often gets overlooked. So if you find yourself struggling for inspiration, try asking yourself what sort of story you’d like to tell to the ones you love most. In the meantime, please come back Thursday when I continue with two more tales of Phillip the Mouse. Each of these are drawn from the bedtime stories I’ve shared with my toddler son, and each was designed based off of his personal interests and life events. They are examples of ways that I have used stories to speak to him about himself, and let him know how special he is.