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The stuff that dreams are made of

           THE HORROR!  THE HORROR!!




Chuck Wendig writes: I grew up on horror fiction. Used to eat it up with a spoon. These days, not so much, but only I suspect because the horror releases just aren’t coming as fast and furious as they once did.

But really, the novels I have coming out so far are all, in their own way, horror novels. DOUBLE DEAD takes place in a zombie-fucked America with its protagonist being a genuinely monstrous vampire. BLACKBIRDS and MOCKINGBIRD feature a girl who can touch you and see how and when you’re going to die and then presents her with very few ways to do anything about it. Both are occasionally grisly and each puts to task a certain existential fear that horror does particularly well, asking who the hell are we, exactly?

And so it feels like a good time — with Halloween approaching, with DOUBLE DEAD in November and me writing MOCKINGBIRD at present — to visit the subject of writing horror.

None of this is meant to be hard and firm in terms of providing answers and advice. These are the things I think about writing horror. Good or bad. Right or wrong.

Peruse it. Add your own thoughts to the horror heap. And as always, enjoy.  READ MORE





                         T H E   W E S T E R N

Traditionally, the Western genre is typically known for action and adventure. But the defining characteristic of westerns is usually the land, or the frontier, a rugged and dangerous and largely unknown environment in which and some times through which the western hero must fight a life and death struggle against the elements of nature and those who inhabit that wild realm and whose identity, livelihood or way of life is threatened or otherwise susceptible to destruction at the hands of those that for whatever reasons have seen fit to enter that wilderness. Western stories are stories about men and women struggling at the borderline of society, or who have crossed over the line of civilisation and entered into a realm in which the usual norms do not apply.

In the conventional western, one finds cowboys, explorers, and settlers - either hired hands or enterprising citizens - whose mission involves taming, dominating or transforming perceived danger into a semblance of security or home. Often they are opposed by the native occupants of the land in question (Indians), and the conflict issuing from such opposition is usually extreme, involving the highest stakes. Settlers build isolated homesteads or live in small towns, which often boast a main street; main businesses of these small towns include a jail, a livery stable and saloons. Settlers are just as distinct as the setting, the men wearing boots, spurs and Stetsons. Other prevalent imagery of the "old" West includes wearing bandannas, denim and Colt 45s.

The untamed frontier is filled with hostile environments, with the conflict between settlers and Indians, as well as the ongoing fight between lawmen and outlaws. Lawmen protect the towns from outlaws who might commit crimes such as bank holdups, stagecoach robberies or train robberies. While upholding the law, guns often come into play, with shoot-outs and showdowns being a common occurrence in the fight between the good guys and the bad guys.

The importance of law and order in an untamed frontier brings out the concept of heroes. In addition the local lawmen, heroes are often cowboys, marshals or skilled gunfighters. Heroes are also usually courageous, masculine and tough. They are honorable, have integrity and hold onto a moral code. In addition, heroes are often adept at a variety of skills, which includes handling horses, shooting a gun, and using a lasso. Some heroes have a trusty sidekick and might even have a favorite horse.There is also, usually, a love interest.

Louis Giannetti makes an interesting point when he points out that points out that genre films go through a four-stage cycle:


1st stage - the Primitive, the formative stage in which the genre's characteristics are first established 


2nd stage - the Classical, the genre at its peak, with generic qualities refined


3rd stage - the Revisionist, which scrutinizes and reevaluates, often in a critical way, the conventions that typify the genre


4th stage - the Parodic, in which the genre is satirized in a consciously self-reflexive, tongue-in-cheek manner


Films in a particular genre usually go through all four stages and then can backtrack, going back and forth between the last three stages.   (Obviously, once a genre is established, it can't revert to the Primitive Stage.)   Let's look at how this four-stage paradigm might be applied to The Western.


The Western Genre - Primitive Stage

   The origins of the Western film genre predate cinema. The genre’s roots are in colonial folk music, Indian folk tale, the dime novel à la Zane Grey, and James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. These are all "seeds" which led to the development of the Western as popular mythology. However, it is imperative you understand that the Western grounded the myths; that is, the vision of the Old West perpetrated by the Western is fabulistic and not at all representative of what life was really like on the frontier. In fact, the Western has been described as a formula picture in which "the legend of the West is virtually reduced to its essentials and then fixed in the dreamy clarity of a fairy tale."

    One of the earliest films, made before 1900, was a brief tableau by Thomas Edison called Cripple Creek Barroom. It is really just a documentary, a brief vignette of Western dandies hanging around a bar presided over by a Native-American woman.

     In 1903, Edwin S. Porter's 10-minute long The Great Train Robbery emerged. Not only would this movie prove to be the first Western hit, but it is also touted as the first real narrative film. It contains many of the generic characteristics associated with the classic Western: a crime is committed, there’s a pursuit, a showdown, and the meting out of justice. Stuntmen were still pretty much a thing of the future, so there are no spectacular falls from a horse, although at one point, a dummy – supposedly a conductor or other train employee – is thrown off the moving vehicle.  It’s important to note that the film was made in New Jersey, when there were still enough rugged locations available to approximate the Southwest. Also, at the time this film was made, train robberies were still being committed on a fairly regular basis, so the film was, at the time of its release, still topical!

    The Great Train Robbery was a huge success and spawned score of imitators. By 1914, the first Western hero, William S. Hart, emerged. Hart was known for his stage work, as he was primarily a Shakespearean actor. However, he had spent much of his youth in the West and had seen gun fights first hand. He even knew Bat Masterson & Wyatt Earp! And in addition to Hart's popularity, there was his pinto pony, Fritz, who would become the first movie horse to attract a following.


The Classical Stage 

It would take John Ford to bring the Western to its classical stage. Known for consistently high standards, Ford would develop much of the Western’s cinematic language, such as the panoramic vistas of the Southwest, in which man is pitted against the environment. Ford made plenty of silent Westerns, but most of them have been lost. Then, as talkies came into being, the popularity of Westerns dwindled, and musicals – because of the sound element -- became dominant. Westerns didn’t disappear, though, but morphed into mostly "B" movies. Then, in 1939, Ford resuscitated the genre with his movie Stagecoach. This classic also made a star out of John Wayne, who plays the film’s hero, the Ringo Kid. (However, Wayne was no overnight success; he had been languishing in low-budget movies for years.)

    The success of Stagecoach was directly responsible for the largest single cycle of big-scale Western films, including Jesse James, Dodge City, Destry Rides Again, Union Pacific, Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail, to name a few. These deluxe-scale, classical Westerns entrenched the genre. By 1942, however, this explosion leveled off, as a spate of war films had begun. However, there were still hits like The Spoilers, which boasts an all-star cast, and the B-movie Westerns, with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, were at their peak.




The Revisionist Stage

    By the 1950's, revisionism began creeping into the genre. For example, in 1950, there was the release of The Gunfighter, in which an older gunslinger, tired of fighting, is challenged by a young hothead. In 1952 High Noon, which questions violence, was released, and it was followed the next year by Shane, in which the generic conventions are filtered through the naive perceptions of a young boy. This reevaluation of Western ideals would continue with the blood-and-guts Westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. By the 1970's, the genre would also reevaluate the myth of Native Americans as savages, in features such as Little Big Man, which personalizes Indians, portraying them as the civilized force being savagely decimated by whites.

The Parodic Stage

    During the mid-70's, the genre proffered its best known parody: Blazing Saddles. While there had always been parodic Westerns – a film called The Little Train Robbery was made just after Porter’s silent classic was released, and Lee Marvin had a success in the 1960's playing the title character in the Western parody Cat Ballou – few had been successful till Mel Brooks' take on the Western came along.

Revisiting Other Stages

    During much of the 70's and 80's, the popularity of the Western waned, except for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, and Eastwood’s own follow-ups to the genre, such as Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider. Of course, with two early 90's revisionist Westerns winning Oscars for Best Pictures – Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Eastwood’s Unforgiven -- there has been yet another resurgence in Westerns. We certainly need the heroes. 


The Western Cross-Breed

    Along with the four-step paradigm, the Western genre has undergone other kinds of changes. For example, sometimes the setting is transposed to another time and place, as in Zardoz, which is set in hundred of years in the future but features a typical Western hero in Sean Connery. Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai may be nominally about Japanese warriors, but it has been widely seen as a Western set in feudal Japan.


Subgenres of Westerns:

There are many subgenres of the typical or traditional western, to name a few:

  • the epic Western (i.e., The Big Country (1958)
  • the 'singing cowboy' Western (films of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, see below)
  • the "spaghetti" Western (the "Man With No Name" trilogy of films by Sergio Leone)
  • the "noir" Western (i.e., Pursued (1947))
  • the "contemporary" Western (i.e., Hud (1963))
  • the "revisionistic" Western (i.e., Little Big Man (1970), Dances With Wolves (1990))
  • the "comedy" Western (i.e., Cat Ballou (1965), Blazing Saddles (1974))
  • the "post-apocalyptic" Western (i.e., Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981-2), The Postman (1997))
  • the "science-fiction" or "space" Western (i.e., Outland (1981))



1.  The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader/viewer has been allowed to follow. 
2.  All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3.  Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. 
4.  No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. 
5.  No accident must ever help the detective, nor must s/he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. 
6.  The detective must not himself commit the crime.
7.  The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
8.  The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his/her mind; his/her intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader/viewer.
9.  Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

While the crime/mystery story Is a well-established genre that adheres to a set of fairly obvious narrative principles and conventions, the sub-genre of the "whodunnit" often proves much too challenging for many screenwriters. An avid, well-informed audience will always expect a lot from the dramatic-story experience, and the whodunnit plot is as demanding as any plot a screenwriter may write. Freshness and unpredictability, allied with credibility usually make the difference between an entertaining story and a mediocre bore. The whodunnit audience wants the intellectual challenge of solving the crime before the detective does, and the suspense and mystery that accompanies the characters (including the audience) when they are working with fragments of information. Naturally, the best way of familiarizing yourself with the "rules" is through direct observation and analysis of the best crime/mystery scripts and films that have been made - films like Chinatown and the Dutch film, Karakter, come to mind. It is important - if you wish to work in this genre - to see how others employ the narrative and cinematic conventions to create fresh and unexpected ways of presenting what is largely a plot-driven genre, and also to see how and when they manage to get away with working against those conventions.

 Mature man with pipe looking through magnifying glass, profile


1. In mystery writing, plot is everything.

Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel,
plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving. Don't get bogged down in back story or go off on tangents.

2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on.

As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the book. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist, or villain, enters too late in the book to be a viable suspect in their minds.

3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.

The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.


4. The crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.

For many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective's powers. However, also note that some types of violence are still taboo including rape, child molestation, and cruelty to animals.

5. The crime should be believable.

While the details of the murder -- how, where, and why it's done, as well as how the crime is discovered -- are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.

6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detection Club: "Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?"

7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

Your reader must believe your villain's motivation and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.

8. In mystery writing, don't try to fool your reader.

Again, it takes the fun out. Don't use improbable disguises, twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. The detective should not commit the crime. All clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.

9. Do your research.

"Readers have to feel you know what you're talking about," says author Margaret Murphy. She has a good relationship with the police in her area, and has spent time with the police forensic team. Get all essential details right. Mystery readers will have read a lot of books like yours; regard them as a pretty savvy bunch.

10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.

They're reading to find out, or figure out, whodunit. If you answer this too early in the book, the reader will have no reason to continue reading.

                      MORE ABOUT GENRE


 With thanks to John Truby

The key question that all screenwriters should ask themselves is: how do I write a script that Hollywood wants to buy? Most writers mistakenly think that success is all about connections and star power. Not so. The real trick to writing a script that will sell is to know and use Hollywood’s central marketing strategy. And that can be summed up in one word: genres.

Former Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger recently said, “There’s no doubt the star system is in transformation. Arguably the two biggest stars in the first half of 2009 were Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) and Liam Neeson (Taken). That’s a significant shift in the meaning of star power and a shift to the premium that is being put on concept and genre.” 

Shmuger is telling any screenwriter smart enough to listen the first rule of the entertainment business worldwide: it buys and sells genres. Genres are story forms and each has from 8-15 special story beats (story events) that make up the form. The reason Hollywood marketing is based on genre is that executives are selling to a worldwide audience. And people the world over love particular types of stories that speak to their deepest desires. 

I’d like to tell you 10 story techniques that must be in your script if you want the best chance of selling it in a genre-dominated business.
1. Know the 10 most popular genres

Step 1 in writing a script Hollywood wants to buy is knowing the 10 most popular story forms. If you write a script that is not based on one or more of these genres, your chance of a sale plummets. They are Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Horror, Fantasy, Love, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.

2. Combine 2 or 3 genres

In the genre-focused entertainment business, the most important story strategy today is to mix genres. 99% of films made, not just in Hollywood but worldwide, are some combination of the ten most popular genres. Why? It all goes back to that old rule of selling: give the customer 2 or 3 for the price of 1. This, in a nutshell, is how Hollywood works. 

Let me give you some examples. The super-popular Bourne films are Action + Thriller. Knocked Up is Comedy + Love. Little Miss Sunshine is Myth + Comedy. Titanic, the most popular movie of all time, is Love + Disaster Film + Myth. The Dark Knight is Crime + Myth + Fantasy. The Harry Potter stories, the most popular books of all time, are Fantasy + Myth + Horror + Coming-of-Age Drama. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are Fantasy + Action + Horror + Myth. 


3. Find the right genre for the story idea

The single biggest decision you make in the entire writing process occurs right at the beginning, when you are developing your premise, or story idea. The decision is: which genres should I use for this idea? Here’s a shocking but eye-opening fact: 99% of scripts fail at the premise. And why? It’s not because their original story ideas weren’t good. They fail because the writers didn’t know the best genres to use to go from a 1-line idea to 2-hour, 120-page script. 

Each genre will take a story idea in radically different directions. So when writers choose the wrong genres to develop their idea, the result is not only a lot of bad scripts but also the waste of thousands of great story ideas. Given that you can use many genres to develop the same idea, the key question is: what are the right ones? 

The secret to choosing the right genres is buried in the story idea itself. You need to dig into the premise and find the genres inherent to that idea. Instead of trying to copy a popular movie from the past, you need to find what is original, what is organic to your story. One of the powers of genre is that the right genres highlight the inherent strengths of the idea and hide the inherent weaknesses. 

Dig into your premise and find the best genre for you. Focus on the desire line, one ofthe seven major story structure steps. It turns out that each genre has a unique, pre-determined desire line. For example, the Crime desire is to catch a criminal. Detective is to find the truth. Horror is to defeat a monster. For Love, it’s to find love. Myth is to go on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself. Figure out the goal of your hero and see if it matches the desire of any of the main genres.


4. Use Myth as one of your genres

Because Hollywood only wants scripts with blockbuster potential, your story must be popular in over 100 different cultures and nationalities. That’s a lot of communication barriers to cross. Unfortunately, most writers don’t know which genres travel well and which don’t. For example, comedies based mostly on funny dialogue DON’T travel. Myth, on the other hand, loves to travel. That’s why Myth is found in more blockbusters by far than any other form. 

is the oldest of the 10 most popular film genres, and is surprisingly complex, with 15 special story beats. But boy, is it popular. Try adding up the box office of these Myth-based films: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek, Star Wars and The Lion King.

 5. Combine Myth with one or two other genres

While Myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it almost never stands alone. That’s not just because Hollywood wants to give people 2 or 3 genres for the price of one. It has to do with the deep weaknesses found in the form itself. 

The Myth form is thousands of years old. And it has a very episodic structure, so it can grow tiresome and decline in power through the middle of the story. Top professional screenwriters know this, which is why they always add 1 or 2 other genres to modernize the Myth form and overcome its episodic quality.


6. Make one genre primary

Screenwriters who are smart enough to study Hollywood as a business know that it’s all about combining genres. Where they sometimes go wrong is in execution. It’s one thing to say, “Take 2 or 3 story forms and put them together into a seamless whole.” It’s another thing to do it well. 

Combining genres is more difficult than it looks, because of what it does to the story structure under the surface. Each genre has a pre-determined hero, opponent, desire line, thematic focus, and so on. Which is why most writers combining genres end up with a structural mess. They have too many heroes, desire lines, opponents, themes and story beats. Any one of these structural mistakes will kill a script, so imagine what happens if you make them all. 

When mixing genres, the key is to make one form the primary one. This will give you your hero, a single desire line, a single story line and the most important unique story beats. Then put in other genre elements where they fit, so they amplify the primary form.

7. If you’re writing a screenplay for an indie film, write Horror, Thriller, or Love

One of the best ways to break in and separate yourself from the thousands of other screenwriters in the world is to write and make your own film. Of course, that requires keeping costs to a bare minimum. And the cheapest genres to shoot are Horror, Thriller and Love. These genres require the fewest actors, sets and special effects. Of these, horror is the most popular worldwide. But the most important determinants of which genres you use for your indie film are which genres are best for your story idea and which genres you are best at writing.

8. Hit all the genre beats

Writers of blockbuster movies always know their genres so well that they hit every one of the story beats unique to their form. In genre writing, this is known as “paying the dues.” And it’s absolutely essential or the audience feels cheated. Remember, they are there to see the story forms they love, so you have to know your genres better than anyone else and give the audience what they crave. And that means knowing how your genres work under the surface, in the structure, where the real story work is done.

9. Be original, transcend the genre

It may surprise you that the biggest reason a reader turns down a script is because it’s “derivative.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the writer hit all the beats of the genre, but nothing more. Readers have read scripts from every genre hundreds of times. So you can’t stand out from the crowd just by “paying the dues.” 

That’s why professional screenwriters not only hit all the genre beats, they do the beats in an original way. This is known as transcending the genre. And you simply cannot succeed if you fail to transcend the genres you’re working in. 

Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for how to do this for all genres. Transcending genre is different for each form. In the 1-day class I teach in each genre, I spend a great deal of time on exactly how to do this. Transcending depends on the story beats that are unique to your form. It also requires that you study the best films in your form so you know what has already been done.

10. Be honest with yourself, and specialize in the forms that are right for you

Genres are extremely powerful structural tools for a screenwriter, and they are the key to your success in the entertainment business. But they are complex story systems. I don’t know a single professional screenwriter who has mastered more than 2 or 3 of them. That’s why it’s so important that you look honestly at yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Determine which genres highlight your strengths and express the themes you believe in. Then apply yourself with laser-like focus to mastering those forms. 

When you let genres do the hard story work, and concentrate on writing them in an original way, you will be amazed at how good, and how successful, your scripts will be.


John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.