Originality, Inspiration, and the Writer

It has been said that there are no original stories anymore, that everything borrows from something.  For the most part, this is a true statement.  If you look at the state of modern television and movies especially, you see the same tropes popping up over and over again.  Alien invasions, reality shows, crime procedural shows, and so on seem to typify the market these days.  I’m sure a lot of people would agree with the sentiment that seeing these shows over and over again gets tiring.

First off, I feel that I should say that I have no problem with repeated ideas.  It happens, and it is bound to happen time and time again.  But there is something to say about seeing the same alien invasion story and the same demonic possession story done so many different times.  Humans need variety.  While there is nothing wrong with these story lines, it gets repetitive after a certain amount of time.

While we may roll our eyes and groan at the mention of another one of these stories, there is something to be said for the struggle of creativity.  As many writers (myself included) can attest, crafting something truly unique or special is no easy undertaking.  And even if the mind latches on to a truly different idea, that’s no guarantee of success.  Ideas alone are not enough.  Writers have to spend so much time fine tuning their work to make sure that it flows well and it looks good.

And where do our ideas come from in the first place?  We writers don’t just sit around waiting for an idea to pop into our heads from somewhere in the ether.  We seek it out.  We look for inspiration in the mundane and the fantastic.  We look for ideas in places old and new.  And oftentimes, it’s difficult.

Inspiration is a fickle thing.  It comes and goes in spurts.  I’ve had days where I can sit down and write out ten pages of something on the spot.  Other days, I find it hard to even get down a single paragraph.  Some days I enter a sort of trance when I’m writing, completely losing myself in my work as my fingers flow effortlessly over the keyboard.  Other days, I just stare at that blinking “I” cursor on the screen, trying to will my brain into coming up with something, anything.

And often, inspiration comes when we’re not thinking about it.  It can come when we’re watching a television show.  It can come when we’re reading a book.  It can come when we’re at work, doing things that demand our attention.  It’s not hard science.  It’s the nature of artistry.

So when you think about it, our ideas generally come from things that have been done before, from story lines that have already existed for some time.  Even the attempt to create something unique often takes the form of doing something in the opposite manner of an already existing work.  A lot of indie movies seem to rely on that basic premise, with many independent romance flicks featuring a not so happy ending for the sole sake of being different.  But the idea for their difference came from something that was already there.  There had to be an established trope for there to be something different.

Humans may have only been around for a small portion of the Earth’s lifespan, but in that time we have told stories to people young and old.  These stories are passed down from generation to generation, and become an essential part of a culture.  These myths and legends help shape us, even if their impact is lessened through time.  Many of the movies or the games we make today feature stories informed by thoughts, beliefs, and fears older than their creators.  In a way, originality is overrated, because we have to find inspiration somewhere.  But there is still the creative spin, the twist on those things we’ve already seen.  A lot of the time, a story will get attention based solely on the fact that it’s a new and interesting twist on an old plot device or character archetype.

People who are good at the art of storytelling will twist and turn something familiar to make it their own.  They will borrow ideas from other works, but incorporate them in a way that seems new.  All great writers do this to some extent, some of them even borrowing from their own older works.  Take Stephen King for example.  He’s written so many different novels that he was bound to start treading on familiar territory at some point.

Originality isn’t some lofty, impossible idea that we hold above ourselves to keep reminding us that we’re never good enough.  Originality is an art, a tapestry spun by the mind.  It is an intangible concept, defined by a person’s perception of the word.  There is no objective test for originality.  There is no concrete measure of what is creative.  Creativity, is in many things, is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s all for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a great week everyone.

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The Power of Words and Context

Words have power right?  That’s what we’re taught from a very young age.  From adages such as “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” to admonishing the use of swear words, as a culture we generally see words as powerful instruments.  This is why certain words become culturally taboo, such as many racial slurs.  These make sense, because those racial slurs usually have only one function: to degrade an entire group of people.  But what happens when people start trying to police a word that has multiple functions?  Well, an example occurred earlier this month.

Jon Jafari (alias Jontron) is an internet comedian who makes videos on Youtube.  He’s generally a silly guy, making weird faces and weird voices while reviewing things like video games and movies.  But recently, he got a lot of flak over something he said.  He posted a status on Twitter, which you can see below, and it was this status that caused an intense backlash.

Jontron Twitter

At question here is his use of the word “retarded”.  This is what people online latched onto and got angry about.  Let’s take a look at the context.

“‘Playstation Now’ is the most painfully retarded thing I’ve seen in a while”.  The context, combined with subsequent posts on his twitter, shows that his focus was on the idea of Playstation Now, which is a sort of video game streaming service.  It seems clear that he was calling the idea or the service itself “retarded”.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t so clear to a lot of other people, who either assumed that Jon meant it in another light or just simply don’t like hearing the word at all.

What followed quickly swirled out of control.  It all resulted in a bunch of so-called “social justice warriors” on the site known as Tumblr creating a smear campaign against Jon for his use of the word.  For my part, I was unable to really find any of this campaign due in part to the fact that it occurred a couple of weeks ago, and mostly due to the fact that I do not have a Tumblr profile and personally do not wish to make one.

My issue with these events is not what Jon said in that status.  In fact, the only thing I can really fault him for is trying to use sarcasm on the internet to express a point.  Sarcasm doesn’t translate well in text, even if you know the person very well.  I commonly get caught up mistaking sarcasm for seriousness when talking to people on Facebook or Skype.

My issue with these events is that it shows a kind of trend going on in our culture.  In the past we’ve been extremely vitriolic and hateful toward people with differences and disabilities.  We still are in a lot of ways, but  we’ve also course corrected in many areas.  But in some cases we course corrected too much it seems, as in the case of the word “retarded”.  It’s become a little taboo of its own in spots, being hated as a word because certain people automatically assume that its use is meant to denigrate the mentally challenged.  The problem is that the word has multiple uses, multiple definitions.  It has indeed been used to put down people with metal disabilities, but if we deny its use based solely on that one aspect of it, we might as well deny the use of other words including but not limited to: stupid, imbecile, moron, idiot, and dumb.  These all mean similar things to “retarded”, and yet no one is out there questioning their use.

Here’s another example, the word “chink”.  In its literal context, chink refers to a break in a piece of armor.  You’ve probably often heard it used in the metaphor “a chink in someone’s armor”, meaning a glimpse into their inner self, that part of a person usually hidden due to fear of not being accepted or being hurt.  But, in the right context, “chink” is also something much worse.  If used at the wrong time, it becomes a racial slur for those of Asian descent.  The thing is, we don’t go around policing the word for two basic reasons.  One, it has too much of a proper context to be forbidden.  And two, racial slurs are so culturally taboo that anyone who used it in that way would be rightfully ostracized and despised.  Here’s a scene from a TV show that hilariously depicts the distinction.

But this cultural over-sensitivity is a dangerous thing.  We censor swear words on television because we’re afraid of their affects on children.  We question the impact of video games on our youth, sometimes taking steps to try to ban the violent ones outright.  We attempt to police what people say because we think that it will negatively impact the lives of others.  We draw lines in the sand, attempting to control and restrict patterns of thought and behavior.  And while such things can be good, we often try to overstep our bounds.

Words exist to be used, as simple as that.  Words are not, by definition, evil.  It is their context that makes them what they are.  In the case of Jontron, the context of “retarded” explicitly shows that he did not intend to use it as a means to demoralize people with disabilities, nor would he ever do such a thing.  But it is this cultural sensitivity that caused people to lash out at him over his use of the word.  It was our own insecurity that caused the controversy in the first place, our assumption that anyone who uses this word is doing it for malevolent purposes.

And then people band together, calling themselves “social justice warriors” and fighting over things like this.  Honestly, there are so many other problems out there, even just in our own country, that need attention that focusing on someone’s use of the word “retarded” is, well, retarded.  It’s different from racial slurs, because most racial slurs exist only as racial slurs.  The word “retarded” does not.  It has multiple meanings, and legitimate uses.  That’s the fascinating (and frustrating) thing about the English language, our words can have so many different meanings and applications.  To ban one of those multifaceted words, just because one of the meanings may be offensive to some, would be absolute lunacy.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.

Facebook Page

I know what you’re all thinking.  “A post on a Sunday?  What is this madness?”  I just wanted to let people know that I have created a Facebook page for this blog in honor of reaching twenty-five posts (which means that I have been doing this for approximately five months now.  I have connected this blog and the Facebook page, which means that as soon as a post goes live here, a post will be made on the Facebook page.  You can find the Facebook page here.

I would like to take this time to thank all of you who have stopped in to read my blog.  I originally started this as a sort of personal endeavor to keep me writing, and never really imagined that anyone would really run into it or care what I had to say.  But apparently people do, and I am now currently sitting at fifty followers.  So thank you all for following this blog and listening to my ramblings.  I hope you all find success and fulfillment in equal measure.  A regular post will go up this Wednesday, and as always, have a wonderful week everyone.

Being Human: Science-Fiction and Me

A long time ago, I was in a hotel room with my family.  It was late at night, and we were sitting up in our beds watching something on the television.  It was on the sci-fi channel (now known as Syfy), and it was some kind of movie I believe.  I don’t really remember what it was, but I remember being absorbed in it.  It’s a strange sensation, having something leave such a stamp on you but being unable to remember much about it.  Chalk it up to me being really young I guess.  But that night remains a powerful reminder that I am, and probably always will be, an avid fan of science-fiction.

It’s always something I’ve been drawn to, for many different reasons.  It’s not like I particularly hate any other genre.  They all have their place in the world, but I will say that sci-fi has always held a special place in my heart.  Part of the reason for this is its versatility.  Science-fiction can be found in a lot of different places, and encompasses a lot of different ideas.  Most people probably think of sci-fi as having to do with aliens, and while that is true, it’s only a small part of the whole.  It’s a wide-ranging genre, tackling topics such as robots, consciousness, dreams, time travel, and parallel universes to name but a few.

Even stories or movies that aren’t strictly classified as science-fiction can have elements of it within them.  Take the television show Awake for example.  Most people wouldn’t consider Awake to be a science-fiction show, because on the outside it has the air of a gritty crime procedural.  However, this interpretation does the show a disservice.  Awake is a television show about a detective who experiences a terrible car accident.  After the accident, he seems to live in two separate realities: one where his wife died, and the other where his son died.  The show is primarily about the interplay between these two realities, and their effects on the main character.  It’s a very bizarre twist on a traditional cop drama, and it’s absolutely brilliant.  It’s a shame the show only got one season.

Shows like that prove that sci-fi is one of the most flexible genres out there.  But that’s not the only reason why I love it so much.

Going along with the versatility aspect, science-fiction has the capacity to address so many different themes.  One of the more major thematic issues that sci-fi tackles is this idea of “being human”.  What does it mean to be human?  Why do we do what we do?  Where is our place in the universe?  Questions like these have plagued mankind for centuries upon centuries, and sci-fi gives us an opportunity to explore those issues.  Many stories that I’ve read deal with what humanity does when pushed to the brink, showing us the conflicting nature of ourselves.  Humans are capable of great kindness and terrible evil in equal measure.  And science-fiction helps remind us that the two are not always as easy to separate as we think they are.

From the grand space opera to the alien invasion all the way down to the sci-fi tinged procedural show, this theme of “being human”  is often on display.  Where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going are all equally important.  Science-fiction often shows us a possible glimpse at the future, be it dark and despairing, or light and Utopian.  It allows us to see where things could go wrong, or give us something strive for.

Despite the wide breadth of thing science-fiction has to offer, being a fan of it is often frustrating.  Much of this has to do with the lack of originality in modern science-fiction.  Despite my championing of its flexibility, I have to acknowledge that a lot of science-fiction these days tends to harp on the same few things.

Much of my complaint has to do with the immense volume of alien invasion stories.  Because apparently aliens have nothing better to do than travel hundreds of light-years to invade and destroy the human race.

In the last decade or so, I’ve seen more than my fair share of alien invasion movies come out.  There was even a remake of War of the Worlds back in 2005 starring Tom Cruise (which was a very good remake).  While not all of these movies are instantly bad, it has the same issue that horror movies about demons do (on a side note, horror and sci-fi share similar origins, and often go hand in hand).  Through too much repetition comes boredom.

I mean imagine if aliens actually did show up to our planet and decided to take a look at our culture.  I couldn’t really blame them if after a cursory glance at our movies they came to the conclusion that any attempts at first contact would be met with “ZOMG FIRE TEH NUKES!”

Although if our military commanders started speaking internet slang, we’d probably blow ourselves up long before any aliens actually arrive.

But I digress.  Science-fiction has so much more to offer us than just bland alien invasion plots.  Take the idea of parallel universes for example.  The television show Fringe was one of the only works of sci-fi in recent years that actually delved into the idea of a parallel universe in great detail, with much of the show’s main plot revolving around the interaction between the two worlds.  In most television shows, a parallel universe was used in a random, one-off episode where the characters ended up in a world where the alternate versions of themselves were inherently evil.

It’s hard being a sci-fi fan when a lot of modern science-fiction is just plain bad.  It seems like the trendy thing to say, but I feel like it’s true in a lot of ways.  In much the same fashion as the horror genre, modern science-fiction tends to recycle the same basic tropes over and over again.  It’s also difficult because the general trend for sci-fi television these days is that most shows get canceled only a couple of seasons in, leaving you with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved.

Science-fiction still has its place in the world.  But we need to explore its various facets more than we are.  We need to become more open to different styles of stories, rather than just the same few recycled and remade over and over ad nauseam.  The popularity of movies such as District 9 proves that people are able and willing to accept something more complex than “aliens bad, shoot them”.  People are ready and even crying out for something new to sink their teeth into, something unique to feast their eyes upon.  The task falls upon the shoulders of the storytellers, those who create the movies and the books that we digest on a daily basis.  We’re heading in the right direction, we just need to keep the momentum going.

And that’s all for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post as always.  Have a great week everyone.

 

 

 

5 Things I Would Change About Modern Horror

In one of my previous posts, entitled “The Frightening State of Horror” (I know, puns right), I talked about how I feel that the modern state of the horror genre is severely lacking.  There’s an over-reliance on too many of the same types of scares, plot lines, and enemies, which leads to an overabundance of eye rolling.  I’ve talked a lot about the things I feel are wrong with the genre, but I haven’t talked much about ways where the genre could make itself better.  I’ve made my problem clear, now it’s time to start generating solutions.  I got the idea for this post from a Youtube video which you can watch here.

And so follows a list of five things I would change about the modern horror genre.

1. Jump Scares

Modern horror seems to be having a love affair with these things.  To put it simply. jump scares are those moments in horror movies that make you…well…jump.  It can be anything from a loud noise in the darkness to a creepy, white-faced man jumping out at the main character and screaming.  They usually do their job, soliciting a knee jerk reaction from the viewers, causing them to tense up and flinch.  But the real question remains, is it actually scary?

Such a question is a hard one to answer, because what is scary depends on the person.  Plenty of people found the game “Slender: The Eight Pages” to be one of the most frightening things they’ve ever seen.  Me?  I found it incredibly dull and ineffective, focusing way too much on sudden, loud musical blasts into your ears than anything overtly frightening.  It’s the difference between believing that there’s something out there in the dark stalking you, and your annoying friend standing behind you banging two frying pans together.

Which is not to say that jump scares don’t have their place.  One of the most effective I’ve ever seen occurred in a video game called Eternal Darkness.  In it, you have a brief vision of your character lying dead in the bathtub in a pool of her own blood.  It’s shocking and gruesome, but the thing that truly made it scary for me was that it happens during something so mundane as just clicking the “B” button to examine the tub.  All the prompt is “examine”, leaving you woefully unprepared for the scene that confronts you.  Not to mention that examining objects in this way is something you do many times throughout the game.

Modern horror uses jump scares far too often.  Dark hallway?  Jump scare.  Creepy music?  Jump scare.  Dark hallway AND creepy music?  What do you know, another jump scare.  It’s all become so artificial and obvious.  Horror movies and games tend to rely on the same bag of tricks far too often, which quickly makes things stale.  If they changed things up a bit, utilized jump scares a bit more like that one in Eternal Darkness, they might actually be more effective.  Jump scares work best when they catch people truly unaware.  Building your entire game or movie around jump scares is not a good way to go.

2. Setting

Dark mansions, spooky castles, and abandoned mental asylums.  All places we’ve seen many times before.  All places we’ve grown plenty tired of.

There’s nothing wrong with the familiar, but as with the jump scares, overabundance of them leads to weariness.  We can only traverse the same environments so many times before they lose all meaning.  Not to mention that many of us have no connection to these types of places.  I know I’ve never had to wander through an old mental asylum or creaky mansion in the dead of night.  And yet, I consider myself an old pro at exploring these places, at least within the realm of video games.

But with familiarity comes loss of power.  This is why horror movies and horror games aren’t as satisfying the second time through.  You already know what’s going to happen, so it doesn’t affect you anymore.  It’s the same thing with horror settings.  Unless you do something inventive or new with it, it quickly becomes stale.  While it is true that nothing is one hundred percent original, a creative touch here and there can go a long way.  Part of the reason why I liked the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent so much was that while it took place in a cliche, creepy castle, it did something rather novel in not allowing your character any weapons.  Your only defense was to run and hide in the closest closet you could find.  It’s the same with horror settings.  Old settings can find new life if they are handled correctly.

The video game Outlast takes place in a creepy mental asylum (gasp) where crazy experiments happened (double gasp).  Picture taken from Steam store page.

The video game Outlast takes place in a creepy mental asylum (gasp) where crazy experiments happened (double gasp).  Picture taken from Steam store page.

3. Demons

Seriously, enough with the demons.  That is all.

4. Character Development

This is something I feel like horror movies don’t really do.  Horror movie characters are usually two-dimensional, fulfilling stereotypical roles to serve as the exemplar of the “everyday”.  While this is fine in some circumstances (such as the movie “The Cabin in the Woods”, an excellent horror movie satire), mostly it leads to a kind of Schadenfreude, or “shameful joy”.  We come to enjoy watching certain characters get killed off because they’re annoying, unlikable, or just plain boring.  By developing the characters more, by giving them a better back story than just being the football jock or the nerdy kid would allow us to identify with them more, which would make their plight that much more tense.

Amnesia A Machine for Pigs is a game I’ve referenced several times for being an intriguing and unique horror experience.  Part of this was the character that you play as.  Oswald Mandus is a man who has done terrible things.  But his reasoning behind them is what really gets me.  Rather than just being some guy who selfishly wants to survive (as in the character from The Dark Descent), Mandus goes about his path because he feels a philosophical depression.   He doesn’t want to save himself, he wants to save everyone.  The way he goes about that is horrific, but his motivation is at least noble in a twisted sort of way.  It’s more than you get from a lot of horror protagonists, who usually just go mad and start doing things because hey, they’re crazy and all.

Ellen Ripley from the Alien movie franchise is another good example of a well-defined character in the horror genre.  She’s incredibly brave, considering all she has to go through in those movies, but at the same time she reveals her vulnerabilities at key moments.  She feels fear just like anyone else, but she rises above it to do what has to be done.  This is especially true in the first movie, Alien, where she is constantly at the mercy of the vicious alien stalking her as well as the government conspiracy underneath it all.  It’s a very psychological movie, which is something that a lot of modern horror lacks.  It’s too much about the physical onslaught of some horrific beast these days, and not enough about the psychological aspect.  With more well-defined characters at the center of these stories, psychological horror will become natural.

5. A Light Touch

A brief whisper in the night can be just as powerful as the slamming door.  We’ve all had that experience of a door mysteriously slamming in the midst of the night due to the wind blowing through an open window.  It makes us jump and scares us, but that feeling leaves after a moment.  The thing that frightens us most in that situation is the uncertainty, the unknown.  For that one, brief moment we experience pure terror before our senses return to us and logic overrides our irrationality.  But it’s that brief moment that’s so powerful.  And it’s all because of one little thing.

All it takes is a light touch.  Drawing back on the over the top music or noises, just for a little bit, can frighten far more than a monster barreling down the hallway at you.  In those situations, your imagination takes over.  At least if there’s a monster chasing you down, you know what you’re up against.  But in those moments when a faraway door creaks or a piano starts playing by itself, you have no idea what you’re about to run into.  You start feeling like a helpless child, knowing that you probably shouldn’t go towards the spooky noise but at the same time driven to know what it is.  These moments are so far and few between in modern horror that it is truly a shame.

This is why I like the Paranormal Activity movies a lot (aside from the lackluster fourth entry).  They build you up, taking their time before they unleash anything truly bizarre or horrific.  It gnaws away at your nerves, making you wonder when something big is going to happen.  You drum up your expectations for the inevitable drop, and when it does finally come, it’s far more intense and powerful than it would be if the movie started off with it.  I’ve preached this a lot in my other posts on horror movies, but it’s true.  There is a lot of power in the build up, the suspense.  And all those little touches (the brief flicker of a shadow, the far away door creaking, and so on) go a long way towards building up this suspense and atmosphere.

The video game Barrow Hill is another great example of horror that utilizes atmosphere more than anything else.  In fact, I don’t recall the game having any jump scares at all.  It merely uses creepy sound and music to draw you in, telling a creepy tale of people disappearing near some ancient burial mound.  It’s very similar to the Dark Fall games that I’ve mentioned before, which makes sense because the guy who made those games assisted in the development of Barrow Hill.

Despite the game not looking super amazing graphically, it still managed to immerse me in its creepy atmosphere.  (Barrow Hill)

Despite the game not looking super amazing graphically, it still managed to immerse me in its creepy atmosphere. (Barrow Hill)

But sadly, most video games have become truly bad at this, as many of the independently made horror games rely far too much on these sudden images popping up accompanied by a loud noise.  It goes back to the jump scares that I talked about at the beginning.  They can’t be very effective if you aren’t given time to appreciate the setting or the atmosphere.  In good horror, your imagination does most of the work.

Closing Thoughts

I truly do love horror as a genre (as you can plainly see), but I regret the path that it has gone down in recent years.  While these changes I would make may not be to everybody’s liking, they were by no means meant to be a comprehensive “here’s how to fix horror” guidebook or anything.  But I do feel that these five things could go a long way toward bringing horror back to the days where it was truly powerful, back to those days when it was a cavalcade of fears and not just a broken record.

Most of these things I have talked about at some length beforehand, but I just wanted to consolidate everything and create a list of things I think would change the modern horror genre for the better.

That’s all I have for this week.  Next week’s post will hopefully NOT involve demons.  Because seriously, demons suck.

Until then, have a wonderful week everybody.