Sometimes things come organically to me. Most often it’s photography pieces. This image, Unexpected Company, is something different. It is the organic foundation of a new photography project. This image begged to be hung alongside my other domestic suspense works, Jilted and Self Portrait with Corpse. These three will now make up the set Love Hurts, and they will not be alone. I plan on creating more images over the next few months.
My History with Suspense
Christmas 1994. Along with the requisite Godzilla toys, I receive a collection of Suspense radio shows on audio tape. These, along with Escape, The Shadow and Lights Out, will dominate my cassette player for months. It’s my first introduction to noir and I’m hooked.
Not long after, these shows are supplemented by a new kind of comic book – one based on a very old series. In the early 1990’s, Russ Cochrin began reprinting old EC titles, including their legendary horror line: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and the Haunt of Fear.
I probably have around two dozen of these comics. They brought imagery to the stories Suspense was whispering in my ear…horrific, lumbering terrible imagery.
It’s fascinating to note that these titles met their demise after a critical paper was published linking comic book violence to juvenile delinquency. Strong regulations were placed on the industry, changed the landscape of the medium forever. The effect of Wertham’s largely falsified negative view on the medium and the establishment of the CCA was the proverbial nail in the coffin for EC’s horror line.
The Legacy of Fear
Even today, EC and Suspense’s stories continue to be republished, revisited and applauded. It’s a testament to the quality of work their creators produced. They were able to captivate out minds and extend their stories beyond the time they were written. They touch something carnal inside us, an animal instinct that makes us glance over our shoulder as we leave the room.
While I did not turn out to be a violence – driven delinquent (much to Mr. Wertham’s chagrin), I was definitely influenced by these works. When I look at these images, I can imagine Joseph Cotton describing them or the Cryptkeeper smiling sardonically in the background. They are my contribution to the genre, my legacy. And you will see more of them.
For the last month or so, I’ve been back in the writer’s chair, sipping the writer’s coffee and attacking a new narrative script. I’ve been largely focused on plot development and character arcs, so it’s very fortuitous that a familiar article is making its rounds in the blog world – Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.
It’s no secret that Pixar consistently produces some of the most solid pieces of storytelling out there. Their writers have a fantastic grasp of the human condition, plot and character arcs and escalation. They know how to make things hard, risky and rewarding and how and when to raise the stakes. They are masters of their craft.
Interestingly, I feel that Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling pair well with some fascinating advice from Henry David Thoreau. Let’s explore them together and try to discover how these two different artists’ philosophies compliment each other.
Any writer, regardless of their medium, can benefit from Pixar’s rules. Here are some of my favorites:
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Most of these relate to characters. Good storytelling, at its core, comes from good character development. Without engaging, compelling and complex choices, all your hard work on the plot will be meaningless.
Thoreau’s Unintended Advice for Writers
One of my favorite pieces of advice for writers is not for writers at all. It comes from Thoreau’s Walden:
“Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
A story’s plot is a series of moves. They key to effective storytelling is using as few moves as possible. Even the most complex and twisting stories should be able to be boiled down to a few basic moves, leading the characters from point A to B to C and concluding there. Too many moves and things either get confusing or coincidental – neither of these is a good storytelling.
Conclusion – Back to Basics
When we take Pixar and Thoreau together, we see both sides of a coin. You can’t have compelling storytelling without a powerful plot and your powerful plot is meaningless without engaging characters. They support each other. Therefore:
Keep your stories simple, keep your characters complex.
Follow this rule, and you’ll be well on your way to successful storytelling.
In January, I had the opportunity to shoot four live sets for Sofar Sounds Philadelphia. If you haven’t heard of them, Sofar Sounds organizes live music events and holds them in regular living rooms. The music is eclectic, the atmosphere sparks with an almost relaxed creativity and the people are easy – going, friendly and all around awesome.
Noah Dickenson and I rolled in an hour early, grabbed some establishing shots of the room and the people coming in and set up for the first of four acts. Aaron Brown, DRGN King, The Gallerist and Mo Lowda and the Humble.
Sofar Sounds Pretty Good
We shot on my 7D and Noah’s 60D and recorded audio on a pair of Zoom H4N’s placed on opposite sides of the room. These were then mixed together for the final edit. Recording audio during a live event from only one source can sometimes yield files that are too heavy on one instrument and too light on another, and mixing two separate sources helped to eliminate this issue.
All the videos were cut in FCPX by Noah. Take a moment to check them out and head over to these artist’s sites.YouTube responded to TubePress with an HTTP 410 - No longer available