Nov 20, 2012

What can John Carpenter teach you about writing?

Photo by Thomas Peter Schulz
"In England, I'm a horror movie director. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the US, I'm a bum."
— John Carpenter

John Carpenter (b. 1948) is an American film director, producer, screenwriter and composer. He likes to score his movies, though he doesn't read sheet music.

Despite the appreciation of big name directors that have cited Carpenter as an influence -- Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan among them -- the mainstream likes to keep Carpenter at a safe distance. Perhaps his distaste of rigid hierarchies has something to do with it, or maybe his love of creative freedom.

Significant works:

Dark Star (1974)

Four astronauts and a commanding officer in cryonic suspension travel the universe on the Dark Star, destroying "unstable planets." One of the astronauts spends a great deal of time chasing a beachball-shaped alien around the ship, as said alien trills and gurgles like a mouthless turkey, escapes into elevator shafts and annoys the crap out of everyone. Things get really hairy when the Dark Star's bomb drop mechanism fails and self-aware bomb #20 refuses to disarm.

DanO'Bannon co-wrote the script and acted in this movie. O'Bannon would later reuse some plot elements from Dark Star in his script for Ridley Scott's Alien

Halloween (1978)
The quintessential slasher movie.

Michael Myers is evil. Even his psychiatrist says so. Myers wears a William Shatner mask and likes to skulk around in the suburbs looking for people to stab. His being a mute psychopath makes Michael immune to all sorts of physical harm.

One presumes that Michael only exists one day a year, or that he's found some kind of temporal conveyor belt/revolving door that turns his life into a succession of Halloween nights.

I for one like the fact that nobody knows where Michael gets his psycho survival powers, or why. Trying to explain a flimsy premise would only ruin it for everyone. Let's not go the Rob Zombie way.

The Thing (1982)

An American research team in Antarctica takes in a fake dog, despite a rat-tat-tat warning from a guy pretending to be Norwegian. The Americans shoot the Norwegian and put the fake dog in their dog pen, where it changes shape and attacks the real dogs.

As the alien goes through its catalog of stomach-churning body plans, the hapless humans try to kill it with fire. Several times. However, fragments of the alien always manage to break off and regroup in a dark corner.

It doesn't take the characters too long to realize that the creature has the capability to imitate any of them. Paranoia sets in. People die in disgusting ways.  

They Live (1988)

A nobody falls off the cattle wagon outside LA and finds a mysterious pair of sunglasses. What's so special about the sunglasses, I hear you ask. Well, they allow him to see that ghoulish aliens walk among us and that every billboard, every magazine, every dollar bill conveys laconic injunctions that enforce conformity, consumerism and blind obedience. Oh, and the world becomes black and white when you put on the sunglasses.

The main character, our nobody, is called "Nada" -- nothing.

So, what can John Carpenter teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

"Movies are pieces of film stuck together in a certain rhythm, an absolute beat, like a musical composition. The rhythm you create affects the audience."

Do you have a favorite song? By favorite song I mean one that's stuck with you for years. Whenever you play it, you feel consoled or elated. It makes you want to dance to it or play air guitar. You do have a song like that in your life, don't you? Mine is "Samarithan" by the Swedish doom metal band Candlemass.

Now give your special song a listen. I'll wait.


... Still waiting ...


... How long is that song, anyway?...


... zZzZzZzZz ...

*John wakes up, startled*

(Oh, it's you. Gawd, I was having the worst nightmare.) 

So. Did you notice the dynamics? The dramatic pauses? Are there lulls and crescendos? How about the chorus -- does it feel like an organic part of the song, or does it strike you as something they tacked on, just because conventional wisdom demands that there be a chorus?

I'll let you in on a little secret. When you play in a rock band for a while, you develop a feel for the kind of song structure that gets people fired up. The secret is this: if the song you're working on thrills you or shakes you to the very foundation of your Self, the audience will respond in a positive manner.

What Elmore Leonard said, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip," applies to music as much as it does to writing. (And filmmaking.) You can always find a way to convey story elements without boring the reader. Don't just kill your darlings; kill your ugly ducklings too.

The alien beachball in Dark Star.

Now, let me ask you, what's another thing songs and stories have in common?
If you answered "Both need to end on the right note," you win two Internets. Some narrative ingredients don't go together, except in volatile mixes; there's comedy in Hamlet, but of a bitter sort, and everybody dies at the end. Yet a happy resolution would ruin Hamlet -- it would constitute a betrayal of the entire narrative movement toward a blood-soaked finale. It's like wrapping up this violin sonata with "Jerk It."

When your story is torn between two poles, you need a dominant flavor. Duds like Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a horror comedy, fail because the comedy's pathetic and the horror's just cartoony.  

"Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They're us with hats on. The zombies in George Romero's movies are us. They're hungry. Monsters are us, the dangerous parts of us. The part that wants to destroy. The part of us with the reptile brain. The part of us that's vicious and cruel. We express these in our stories as these monsters out there."

Prince Stolas teaches astronomy.
Illustration by Collin de Plancy
Aleister Crowley argued that demons are part of the human brain, and indeed if you look up the descriptions for the 72 Goetic demons you'll find that they all cater to human lusts; some reveal hidden treasure, others grant you supernatural power over men and women. Duke Vual, for instance, works as a demonic cupid. Count Ronwe's favor turns you into a silver-tongued orator. Astaroth can make you invisible and lead you to great riches.

What are these lords of hell, if not expressions of the desire for material prosperity?

Narratives that deal with demons (essentially, the unknown), with horror and violence, carry out an invaluable social function (within the bounds of reason, of course): They teach that the world isn't 100% safe, that prudence has survival value, that you can't trust everyone the same way you trust your family or closest friends.

They also imply that monstrosity disguises itself. Let's go back to The Thing for a minute -- the unnamed alien life form can imitate any living shape, but whatever it imitates, it destroys. As the story moves forward, the Thing imitates several members of the American crew and tries to allay suspicions by acting as freaked out as the human characters. On the surface, you can't tell the Thing from the person it has assimilated. However, the ultimate replica does not erase the fact that there once existed an original.

Perfect imitation, combined with the loss of identity, leads me to the idea of psychopaths as intra-species predators. (More information on psychopathy here, here and here.) They look just like us, but they aren't us -- it's the dissonance that frightens you. So we turn to werewolves, vampires and bug-eyed Martians, because these imaginary deformations of the human figure put danger and violence at one remove, making it easier to frame and understand.
A theory has emerged that psychopaths play an essential role among humans -- they keep the memory and knowledge of evil alive in societal groups, therefore increasing that group's survival odds.

Imagine an idyllic tribe of 50 or 60 people, say, twelve thousand years ago. For the sake of argument, let's assume that they have been isolated for two generations and also that the last two generations have produced no psychopaths, so that these people no longer understand maliciousness and manipulation. What would happen if they encountered a group half their size, which happened to include a couple of high-status psychopaths? The tribe of innocents would be outclassed, to say the least.

Paradoxically, these people that prey on their own species have helped us survive. And they have found a place in fiction; Bluebeard would be at home in Hollywood, I'm sure. Monsters are masks that we impose on our deepest fears so we can define them, and by defining, we defeat them.  

"I don't want to be in the mainstream. I don't want to be a part of the demographics. I want to be an individual. I wear each of my films as a badge of pride. That's why I cherish all my bad reviews. If the critics start liking my movies, then I'm in deep trouble."
— John Carpenter

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction.
Keep reading: visit the hub page for this series.

Oh, and don't forget to share your favorite song in the comments.

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