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Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Fri Jul 01, 2016 9:41 pm
by Nidotamer
Not sure if the title is confusing but here goes.

I think we're all rather familiar that there's a few tropes in writing often considered bad. Things that make people roll their eyes when they see it. Things like leaving questions unanswered or gratuitous fanservice, ect. But I'm thinking, is there a good time for tropes like this? Like moments where they would work?

Like in horror or similar stories would it be a decent time to leave details out? I always feel most creepypasta stories (that aren't about lost episodes or video games) actually have me interested... until they straight up reveal a monster and it does the usual monster things. Like ususally leaving major things unanswered isn't seen as a good sign but isn't fear basically rooted in the unknown? Isn't it then more interesting or creepy if there's certain things we won't ever know for sure?

Or using the "two people don't communicate, end up in shitty situation" cliche for humour instead of drama?

Well basically, I'm wondering if there's any particular tropes and such that irk you or are generally looked on as 'bad' but more interestingly, have context where using those tropes can be a *good* thing? Like, is there a way for an amnesia plot to actually be handled really well? When there might actually be a right way to using Chekhov's Gun? Or even a time where a scene considered fanservicy could actually really work? If anything the thought of things that people generally consider to be bad actually being handled in a really good way is rather interesting as far as I'm concerned!

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Fri Jul 01, 2016 10:01 pm
by c_nordlander
As for the first one, I think most people would probably say that it's *better* to leave details out in horror. Like some big-job director (Hitchcock?) said: never show the whole monster. A lot of horror writers are famous for getting vague when their stories reach the climax. Let's face it, nothing can be as scary as the reader's own imagination.

I think pretty much any story element can be used if well-written enough. Plot elements like amnesia tend to be disliked because they're so overused... but I've written an amnesia story myself, and I'm not ashamed to say it.

Essentially, I think one of the major things it comes down to is *thinking about what the plot element means and whether you need it*. You got a story in mind that uses amnesia to make some sort of point or an original development that couldn't be made otherwise? That's good. You want a character to have amnesia because you don't want to think up a backstory for them, or because you want them to have something to angst about, or (shudder) "because that's what usually happens in this kind of story"? That's bad, because you're not actually coming up with anything interesting, you're just shoving in a cliché.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Sat Jul 02, 2016 2:09 am
by gkscotty
As far as I'm concerned, and like I think Chris said, purpose trumps cliché. As long as it's not horrifically distasteful, if it's used well, do it.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Sat Jul 02, 2016 4:47 am
by SirMustapha
Chris and Steve have already expressed much of what I think, so I'll try not to repeat their words.

I think trying to do what you propose (picking up "bad" elements and trying to make them good) can be a good exercise, but when it comes to "spontaneous creation" (that may not be a very good term), the purpose and the context of things should be sufficient to judge if the elements being used are adequate or not. E.g., you could probably slip in a bit of fanservice and even exploit it if the story actually asks for it (keep in mind I have stakes of my own in this, as I'm currently working on a story that's... a little more than fanservicey, if you will...), without letting it become annoying and jarring, and you could use clichés if they actually have a purpose (like Chris said, it's particularly bad when it's done because "that's what usually happens"; people tend to notice that) and are justified by other things.

I think the closest I got to deliberately subverting a bad trope into something good was in Treasure Hunt, in which it seems that a character has a big problem and needs to be "rescued", but things turn out to be a little more complex. Even though I was aware of how that could feel like a cheap "gotcha!", this was just the way the characters and the story naturally evolved, so I didn't bother much. If anything, I don't think writers should be too mindful about "tropes" when creating. Tropes can be useful and fun for discussing finished works and analysing connections and patterns, but when it comes to creation, I think they're mostly a pain in the ass, and don't work as very good advice.

Finally, about the "leaving details out" in horror stories, I think you should definitely do it, but just think about the how. I think, in horror, you should only reveal barely enough to make sure there's an inner logic to how things work, and nothing seems too ludicrous or too cheap. Say, when it comes to zombie stories (e.g. Romero's Dawn of the Dead), I think it's better when it doesn't try to explain the origin of the infection, or its mechanism or anything else; the confusion and the frustration of the people adds a lot to stories like these, and trying to make it "realistic" by giving it a "scientific" explanation just feels boring and unimaginative. Another good example for me is Cube; it doesn't matter what it is, where it is, who's behind it, how those people were brought there and why. Being in the dark helps me connect to those people, and care a lot more about what's going on inside it. Their confusion is my confusion, and that makes things much more interesting. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have Saw, which is filled with ludicrous, silly decisions just for the cheap "gotcha!" moments, so I can't help but go "how the HELL did that work?" and stop suspending my disbelief.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Sat Jul 02, 2016 9:22 am
by c_nordlander
SirMustapha wrote:If anything, I don't think writers should be too mindful about "tropes" when creating. Tropes can be useful and fun for discussing finished works and analysing connections and patterns, but when it comes to creation, I think they're mostly a pain in the ass, and don't work as very good advice.
+1 to this. I think that a certain website has given at least a few writers (hopefully not many) the idea that tropes are like bricks that you can put together to form a structure, when really, writing a story is more like growing a bower of living plants.

Very good points on horror writing as well.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Sat Jul 02, 2016 1:12 pm
by Nidotamer
I think for the most part, my use of the word "tropes" was more down to not having any better way to call it. I usually don't keep them in mind too much myself. Guess I'm just used to calling everything tropes.:P

So it's mostly about purpose. I guess I'm a bit of a literal thinker so often I do need little phrases like that to keep in mind.

Though one of Fernie's last comments in particular got me thinking and, sure this might be going off-topic a little but since it's a small board and it *is* a thread I made then I suppose I'd be allowed to slightly derail it. If anything I regret not making it an all-purpose writing discussion thread. But I think I got why people dislike a certain number of elements in stories and movies. Namely things like the fanservice scene or the violin-screech jumpscare.

I think it's because it only really serves to take the viewer/reader/ect directly out of the story. Like in cartoons where a character makes an aside comment to viewer. Like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_hJHbqGfbI except that intentionally breaking the immersion for a story that's not a comedy is a bit of a bad idea. Especially in the case of the violin screech because it's not something the character hears. Therefore it takes you out of the moment.

Thinking about that, maybe it's why the jumpscares didn't bother me in The Thing (I mean aside from there being only about two or three of them) is that they only give you the exact sounds the characters heard so you still share in the experience. It probably also helped that whenever one happened, it was a significant cause for alarm instead of "CAT! okay moving on." It's part of the story instead of distracting from it.

Suppose similarly with the fanservicy scenes. It can probably have some purpose if it's because, say, the woman in question is in the mood for snu-snu and is deliberately attempting to seduce her boyfriend/girlfriend. It is still kind of a scene that's there to titillate the viewer/reader but at the same time it makes sense in universe since that's what she wants to do to her partner. Or something like the 'accidental lying on top and touching boob' scene could be made into something actually really funny if it's treated exactly as awkward as the situation is for the characters.

Or maybe that in the case of 'overdone fake out scares' that could work if the character being focused on for the scene/story is extremely jumpy or highly anxious so normal events might seem threatening to them to an exaggerated extent.

Guess the whole point of this ramble was the idea that in serious writing, one really should be trying to make the viewer feel the same way as the characters involved. After all, the idea is supposed to be that the reader should feel a connection with that character and, when handled poorly, certain elements tend to just yank the viewer out of that connection. Or something. I'm not sure if even a word of what I said is right.:P

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Sat Jul 02, 2016 5:01 pm
by SirMustapha
Nidotamer wrote:Guess the whole point of this ramble was the idea that in serious writing, one really should be trying to make the viewer feel the same way as the characters involved.
Yes, as a rule of thumb, that's spot on, and I can't think of any exceptions to that at the moment. The way I think about it is that my characters should have a voice of their own, and it should be sufficient to drag the reader into the story. I think that's true for every kind of storytelling medium, regardless of genre (unless we get to the really avantgarde and experimental, but still, even works like Lynch's Eraserhead gave you the experience through the main character's eyes). And I think the groan-inducing jumpscare, even though it has the power to kick the viewer out of the experience (like it almost always does with me), the intention is to try to force a connection between viewer and story that the characters can't create. This goes to such an extent that, in much of the horror genre recently, the only real character is the "monster", and I think that's really unfortunate.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Tue Jul 12, 2016 3:24 pm
by SirMustapha
I'm probably derailing this thread even further than the initial point; but since it's related, I thought I'd add it here. I caught myself thinking about horror/suspense stories in general, and all its possibilities, and my mind wandered to back to things I had already thought about. There are lots of things that I can enjoy in a horror story, even if I'm not properly scared of it (one of my favourite films is The Exorcist, even though I wasn't frightened at all by it). My problems with the genre are more about how it's handled in general, and not with the genre itself. But one thing I say with absolute confidence, and it's that there is one work of pure fiction that genuinely, personally disturbed me. I shiver just thinking about it, and I am including here every mainstream work I've ever seen, in every medium out there. That work is Gently, by Pat.

Of course, one thing that helped this is that I already had a huge emotional connection with the main character, a connection that was very meaningful during a particularly fragile moment in my life. This is, by the way, something very daunting but very empowering about writing fanfiction: even though you're messing with other people's creations, you already have a pre-existing connection with the reader, and you can build so much on it. The possibilities are very powerful for that reason, for better or worse. But I thought to myself: this connection is not enough. Pat's story is not good only because I was such a fan of Lisa. Rather, there is something in the story that caused such a lasting impact. And today, I finally managed to put this in formal terms. The reason why that story disturbs me is that it doesn't try to scare me, the reader, but Lisa.

This was such a revelation that now I finally feel able to deconstruct every annoying horror cliché I've ever hated. This is more obvious in movies, I believe, but it's always quite evident when the writer/director/etc. is actually concerned with the characters, and when they're just trying to scare the audience. I can't find a way to defend the latter choice; it feels inherently artificial and cheap, because, if the characters are strong, then the audience will relate to them. If the character is scared, the audience will feel for them. If there's a good reason for a character to be scared, then you can depict it without cheap tricks. If the events in the story are genuinely threatening to the character, they will reach the audience on their own. Gently is that, whereas garbage like The Conjuring is the exact opposite. (seriously, James Wan, fuck you. No, really.)

Of course, that doesn't mean that gratuitously torturing the character is sufficient, because that also feels artificial. That would be the horror equivalent of wangst (is there a proper word for that?). Instead, the things that happen should have a meaning, a proper reason to scare the character. This is a more subjective matter, since each person may have a different measure of what's sufficient and what's excessive, but that will be a problem with whatever you do. As long as you make an effort to avoid the overkill, it should be valid.

For me, this is the definitive argument against the jump scare, because it also applies to other media. And, to phrase it as an advice, I'd say: when writing horror, forget about the audience. I mean, "audience awareness" (if I can call it that) can work in others styles, probably comedy, and I don't think it's a weakness by default. For horror, though, don't think of the outside world. Try to perceive the events through the characters' eyes. Let them speak of their horror. Let them be interesting and relatable, so the threat can be real and tangible. Instead of asking, "is this scary?", try asking "what would genuinely scare this character?". Elaborate on the effects of the scare, its consequences. Put yourself in the characters' shoes and scare yourself.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Tue Jul 12, 2016 4:41 pm
by c_nordlander
I don't think this was a derailing comment; rather, it's very interesting. (And Gently is an excellent fanfic.) Something I'll have to bear in mind when writing. Also, I'd like to add that in general, for you as the writer to empathise with your viewpoint character is vital in every context, not just in horror. (See my related thoughts here.)

Parenthetically:
Don Cobra wrote:This is, by the way, something very daunting but very empowering about writing fanfiction: even though you're messing with other people's creations, you already have a pre-existing connection with the reader, and you can build so much on it.
I agree: being able to count on the reader's connection with the characters (and the world and continuity) is a unique strength of fanfiction.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Tue Jul 12, 2016 8:38 pm
by Nidotamer
SirMustapha wrote: Of course, that doesn't mean that gratuitously torturing the character is sufficient, because that also feels artificial. That would be the horror equivalent of wangst (is there a proper word for that?).
Well if you mean literal torture then I think it's just called "torture porn" or "gorn". And yeah there's a huge problem with things like that, gore and the like isn't really scary by itself and the stuff that relies on it too much isn't really horror, it's just gross out. Even body horror really oughta be considered more of a condiment. Sure the zombies in the Half-Life series look icky with their open ribcages and headcrabs but it's their vocalisations that sound like muffled screams for help (apparently confirmed when played in reverse) likely confirming the victims are partially aware of themselves and conscious is what makes them horrifying.

And I wouldn't worry bout derailing. Like I said, I regret not making this a general discussion thread anyway so it's fine with me.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Tue Jul 12, 2016 9:02 pm
by c_nordlander
Nidotamer wrote:And I wouldn't worry bout derailing. Like I said, I regret not making this a general discussion thread anyway so it's fine with me.
I think this is the perfect board for it, since it's a discussion about how to write. And goodness knows the Writing board doesn't get a lot of traffic anyway.

I must admit, I have a bit of a penchant for body horror, but I 100% agree with what you're saying.

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Tue Jul 12, 2016 9:24 pm
by SirMustapha
Body horror at least has the potential of being interesting and artistic, or at the very least fun. You can achieve a lot with it when you use it for a good purpose (Alien is a particularly powerful example), and it's the kind of thing that takes much effort and wit to be pulled off well. And I believe that, in written form, it's a case where "less is more" should be a good advice in general. Letting the reader fill in the blanks makes the effect more lasting then giving everything upfront (but then again, I am the kind of person who will wince and shudder like crazy if you just say "ah, and that was when I twisted my ankle", so take it with a pinch of salt. In fact, I'm wincing just tying that).

Re: Discussion: A good time for *bad* story elements?

Posted: Tue Jul 12, 2016 9:27 pm
by c_nordlander
SirMustapha wrote:Body horror at least has the potential of being interesting and artistic, or at the very least fun. You can achieve a lot with it when you use it for a good purpose (Alien is a particularly powerful example), and it's the kind of thing that takes much effort and wit to be pulled off well. And I believe that, in written form, it's a case where "less is more" should be a good advice in general. Letting the reader fill in the blanks makes the effect more lasting then giving everything upfront (but then again, I am the kind of person who will wince and shudder like crazy if you just say "ah, and that was when I twisted my ankle", so take it with a pinch of salt. In fact, I'm wincing just tying that).
This, all of this.

And yeah, things like that should be used sparingly. Just trying to shock/gross out the audience is a cheap tactic.