Horror: Anatomy of an Ending

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 3:21 PM
May 102014

Those of you on my Facebook page or Twitter have recently seen me ranting a bit about horror movies. You’ll have seen some of this before, but by no means all of it.

In trying to recharge my brain, in the midst of multiple big projects, I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies (mostly supernatural horror, which is far an away my preference). And I’m starting to get seriously frustrated with them, almost enough–at times–to make me swear off the whole bloody lot.

Point the first: End your Goddamn movie!

You can have a happy ending. You can have a grim ending. You can have an ambiguous ending. You can have an open ending. All of those are fine in horror (but see point two). But guess what, guys? You still have to have some sort of ending!

Cutting to credits in the middle of a scene, where a few of the main characters are still alive and no actual plot points have been resolved beyond “Lots of people died”? That’s not an ending. That’s lazy. It’s bad storytelling. If there’s not something that tells the viewer “This is why the story ends here,” it’s not an ending. And your movie, no matter what has led up to that point, is a bad one.

Now, on a purely personal level, I really don’t much care for the “Introduce a bunch of characters, kill off all but one or two, make it look like they’re going to survive, then kill them and roll credits” technique. To me, that’s almost not an ending; it escapes qualifying as the above problem by the skin of its teeth. And it annoys the crap out of me. But, as I said, I recognize that as subjective opinion.

Point the second: Did you know that horror doesn’t have to be nihilistic?

Horror is one of the few genres where you can get away with really grim, downbeat endings. The protagonists are all dead. The monster wins. The world’s destroyed. The hero’s soul is doomed for all eternity, trapped inside a haunted bidet. Whatever.

Problem is, the fact that it’s accepted has made it common, and the fact that it’s common has made it a crutch.

If your ending is good, make it as grim/downbeat as you like. Again, that’s one of the genre’s strengths. But a lot of horror scripts seem to have down endings because it’s easier. Once again, it’s lazy writing.

It’s easy to kill everyone off. It’s easy to go for that last jump scare. It’s easy to do, and it’s just as easy to do badly. You know what happens when it’s done badly? It makes the whole movie utterly meaningless. It becomes a non-ending, as above, because the whole film has become a non-story. If you’r going to do it, you need to do it in such a way that it still feels like the actual story has reached an actual end, not like you ran out of characters.

You know what’s a lot harder? A happy ending in horror that flows well and feels natural to the story. You know who tries to write the harder stuff? Better writers.

(No, I’m not saying if you don’t have a happy ending in horror, you’re a bad writer. I’m saying that if you have a horrific ending for no better reason than that it took less effort, or because you feel like you’re “supposed” to, you may need to polish your craft a bit.)

Also? When down endings in horror were a significant minority of endings, it upped the suspense level of every horror movie. You honestly didn’t know if the characters would make it or not. But now that they’re so damn common, and so often lazy? I’ve found it much harder to get invested in the characters or stories of the horror movies, because I’ve reached the point where I don’t expect anything they do to matter.

Before I go into point three, let me be clear: I am fully aware that point three is entirely subjective. While I have some opinion in points one and two, I maintain that the core of those points has some basis in the actual rules of storytelling. I make no such claim about point three; it’s entirely my own thing.

(You’re still wrong if you disagree, though.) ;-)

Point the third: There’s enough damn injustice in the real world, thanks.

Did you notice above where I said that I vastly prefer supernatural horror? That’s largely because it simply falls more in line with my tastes. I’m a fantasy guy, and frankly, dark/urban fantasy and supernatural horror are the right and left hand of the same creature. I just enjoy it more, across the board.

That said, there’s another reason I prefer supernatural horror to horror with human “monsters.” And that’s a question of, well… Justice, to be dramatic about it.

If it’s a ghost, or a zombie, or whatever, then I can deal with most kinds of endings, happy or grim. But if it’s a human? I despise horror movies where the human villain wins or gets away with it. Hate them. It makes me literally gut-clenching, want-to-hit-someone angry, to the point where it’s so unpleasant, it utterly ruins my experience of the movie. If the villain of a horror movie is human, they need to get their comeuppance in some shape, form, or fashion by the end, or else I’d honestly rather never even watch it. No matter how good it otherwise may be.

Along similar lines, I really don’t like stories of struggle to no avail (such as most of the “kill off the last character in the last shot” movies tend to be). Even if it’s a grim ending, I want the protagonists’ travails to have accomplished something. Again, personal opinion, but it’s a personal blog. :-P

Given all of the above? It’s getting harder to find supernatural horror that I enjoy. I’ve reached the point of looking for spoilers before I watch a movie. How self-defeating is that? To know how a horror movie, of all things, ends before watching it. But all the above frustrations have gotten so ubiquitous that I find it preferable to spoil myself than to run into one of said endings without warning.

So please, guys. At least points one and two, okay? I can work through the personal taste stuff on my own if you’ll stop trying to make me eat lazy writing along with it.

P.S. Less about endings than horror movies as a whole, but…

Supernatural horror shouldn’t try to explain everything, no. Leave some mystery, some stuff for the audience to ponder. But explaining too little? Leaving the audience without even a semi-clear idea of what happened? That’s not “Making the audience think.” It’s not “deep.” It, too, is bad, lazy writing.

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One last howl

Posted on April 14, 2014 at 7:05 PM
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Apr 142014

Today, CCP–White Wolf’s parent company–pulled the plug.

Didn’t know White Wolf was still around? That’s understandable. They stopped publishing pen-and-paper RPGs some years ago. A great many of the staff went and founded Onyx Path, the company that is currently publishing the World of Darkness games, as well as Exalted, Scion, and other stuff. They’ve been a worthy successor.

But White Wolf still existed, in the form of people at CCP working on the Vampire MMO. Today, a huge number of them have lost their jobs, to say nothing of years of hard, thankless work that will now never see the light of day. The last formal vestige of White Wolf is gone.

This is a big deal for me (though certainly not nearly as big a deal as it is for the people who were laid off). Vampire: the Masquerade was the first non-D&D game that I got into long-term. (I’d played others, but only briefly or sporadically). It was the first RPG I played with the woman I’d later marry. It completely changed the way I thought about running games.

But more than that… White Wolf gave me my career. After years of failing to break into fiction, it was White Wolf–and Justin Achilli, specifically–who gave me my first professional writing shot. It was the freelance work for WW that led me to D20 work; the d20 work that led me to official D&D work; and it was through WW and Wizards of the Coast that i was finally able to get my foot in the fiction door.

Would it have happened without them? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have been the same, and anyway, it did happen with/because of them.

As I said, Onyx Path is a worthy heir. Heck, it’s many of the same people. I hope to work with them again in the future, and I wish them all the success in the world. But I’m still sorry to see the end of the company that started it all for me, and the effect it’s having on some very good, very talented people.

Farewell, old wolf.

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What We Darn Well Better Not See in Star Wars VII

Posted on March 28, 2014 at 12:08 AM
Mar 282014

There are a lot of places the new Star Wars movies could go. A lot of directions they could take. Plenty of options, plenty of ideas.

Let me tell you what is pretty much at the top of my list for options that would be absolutely the wrong idea.

(Well, my “worst realistic possibilities” list. I’m not counting things like Gungan Jedi or finding out that Jabba is Han’s twin sister.)

And the funny thing, it’s already been done. And it was a bad idea then, too.

Let us return to… I don’t remember. Some year in the early 90s. And a comic book series called “Dark Empire.”

“Dark Empire” was quite popular at the time, and to this day, I cannot fathom why. I mean absolutely zero disrespect to the creative team–there was nothing wrong with the writing as such, or the art, or any of that. Nonetheless, it was an absolute travesty as a chapter of the Star Wars saga, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Jar-Jar was less damaging to the saga than “Dark Empire.”

So, back to the movies, my number one thing I do not want to see. I won’t be so hyperbolic as to claim it’s a dealbreaker–I’ll be standing in that line, and we both know it–but it’s close.

Do not, do not, do not, DO NOT bring back the Emperor. No miraculous survival. Sure as hell no clones. Not even whatever the Dark Side equivalent to the “Force ghosts” might be.


Vader’s sacrifice at the end of Return of the Jedi is the entire reason for the original trilogy to exist in the form we know it. (Stress “in the form we know it.” Before Lucas decided Vader was Anakin, it would’ve gone differently, of course, but that would’ve made two of the three movies entirely different.)

It winds up being the focal point of all six movies we have to date. It is not only the single most meaningful decision point in the Star Wars saga, it was one of the archetypal such decision points in genre/popular culture. Period. Full stop.

Bringing the Emperor back, after that? In any way, shape, or form? It renders that sacrifice utterly meaningless.

I can already hear the arguments. “But it still showed his change of heart!” “But it still dealt the Empire a major defeat!”

Yes, this is true. It’s also not enough.

You cannot take away the primary accomplishment of that act, the single most impactful, important victory, and still claim it has the same meaning. It doesn’t change damage the story of that moment, but of that entire movie, and through that the entire series.

“Darth Vader killed the Emperor at the cost of his own life, in order to save his son.”

It is not just a weakening of symbolism, but literally bad storytelling, to come along afterward and undo that. To literally undo a prior story.

Find a different direction to in the new movies, okay? Don’t try to recapture old glories. Create new ones.

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A Heartfelt Thank You

Posted on January 8, 2014 at 12:44 AM
 1 Comment »
Jan 082014

Well, it’s taken me longer than I’d intended to put this up, but at least it’s here.

Guys, I cannot begin to thank you enough. The call for help I posted was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but you all really came through with more generosity than I could have hoped. While things remain extremely tight, we were able to get through the immediate crisis due entirely to all of you who helped out.

No idea how I’m going to show my gratitude yet, but I’m damn well going to think of something. You’re all the reason I do what I do.

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I need your help

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 9:23 PM
Dec 192013

This is–in terms of both personal and professional pride–one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. That it comes in the middle of the holidays just makes it even worse.

As many of my fans and friends already know, I suffer from a number of health issues, both physical and emotional. For a large chunk of this year, the dosages on my depression meds were wrong, leading to a long period where I was far less functional than I should have been. One of the results of that was that I got less work done this year than I should have.

Well, on top of that, I have several payments that are past-due to me that have not yet arrived, and I’ve just had several months straight of unexpected expenses (personal, health-wise, pet-health-wise, and other).

Bottom line, we’re deep in the red and I’m not sure about basic expenses or rent next month.

hate talking about this in public. I’ve stopped myself from deleting this blog entry several times already. Embarrassed doesn’t begin to cover it. But I need help, not just for me, but so I don’t let my wife–who’s always been overly supportive of me and my career–down.

If you want to help… Well, my preferred method, because I have some pride left, would be for you to purchase a copy of Strange New Words. Because it’s self-published, I get a larger portion of the purchase price than I do on any of my other books, and I get said royalties much sooner as well. I know a lot of you gave to the Kickstarter and thus have a copy already, but if you’re thinking of a holiday gift for the fantasy fans in your life, this would be one good option. You can find the book here, on Amazon, or here, on Smashwords, or here, on DriveThruFiction.

If you’d really prefer to just donate directly, my Paypal e-mail is amarmell@austin.rr.com. Every tiny bit is certainly appreciated. But please do give some thought to picking up the book instead. It feels a little less like I’ve got my hat in my hand.

Thank you, all of you, for everything you’ve done. I hope my work has brought you–or will, in the future, bring you–enough enjoyment to make up for me asking this of you.

Yours in gratitude,

Ari Marmell



–Rodent of the Dark

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Some Agents of SHIELD speculation

Posted on December 5, 2013 at 10:32 PM
Dec 052013

Spoilers if you aren’t caught up through episode 7 or so. Click through for geeky rambling.

Continue reading »

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What price continuity?

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 2:13 AM
 1 Comment »
Nov 052013

I’ve been on a bit of a comics kick, lately. Here’s more.

One of the problems Marvel is currently looking at (there are a few articles on the topic making their way around the net) is that people who watch their movies and then try to go read the comics are likely to be lost.

Hell, people who have been reading the comics are likely to be lost.

Continuity has become a Gordian Knot, if the knot was also a bear that mauled you before tossing you into a convoluted death trap from the old 60s Batman TV show.

Hell, DC’s recent reboot–the “New 52″–was meant, in part, to resent continuity so new readers could climb aboard. Of course, they muddied that up by keeping some ongoing plotlines from before the reboot, and then launching into multiple cross-title mega-stories that threw up different barriers to entry, but still, that was part of the intent.

Ditto Marvel’s Ultimates line, but that swiftly grew as convoluted as anything else.

How many characters have died and come back? How many times? How many different characters have used the same names? Try reading the Wikipedia articles on some of these characters. The “summaries” take up thousands upon thousands of words, and are still often impossible for an outsider to follow.

People talk about superheroes as “modern mythology,” but they have a problem to deal with that mythology doesn’t. They’re ongoing. Heracles’ body of myths is fixed. People may tell new stories about him, but they’re not–if you’ll pardon the use of the term–canonical. Heracles can get married, have kids, then lose his family; he can kill his foes without them coming back from the dead; because these aren’t characters that need to be available for new stories down the road.

Now try killing off, say, Lois Lane. Good luck with that.

And the thing is, there is no possible fix that leaves continuity intact. There’s no way to tell a story for decades, and yet still have a new reader able to hop aboard at any time without some amount of confusion.

So here’s a thought. Don’t try.

What I’m about to suggest will be heresy to many comic book fans, but…

I’ve come to believe that DC and Marvel should reboot/reset their universes regularly. Maybe every ten years or so.

It’d be a “soft” reboot, in some respects. No dramatic changes to the character. Their origins may be tweaked or updated, but not changed. Peter’s bitten by a genetically altered spider instead  of a radioactive one. Frank Castle’s a veteran of Desert Storm rather than Vietnam. Whatever.

But the plotlines reset. Not so the writers can do the same thing all over again (some repetition is inevitable, but there’s already some repetition), but so new readers never have to go back too far. Continuity is limited in terms of how ludicrously complex it can get.

It also means you can try out different directions, make “real” changes. Don’t like the fact that two characters have gotten married? Well, wait for the next reboot. Tired of characters coming back from the dead? You can kill them off “permanently,” because that just means it’s permanent in this cycle.

Obviously, if a change is amazingly popular, you can keep it, writing it into the character “core” that remains from cycle to cycle. But that’d be a rare thing.

It also means you can tell a complete story. Maybe the editor/writers have a fantastic plotline in mind that culminates in the death of the entire Justice League. Under this system, as long as it’s at the end of a “cycle,” you can do that. And you don’t have to magically bring them back, because in “that universe,” it was permanent. You just then have the new/slightly altered versions for the next cycle.

(I’m talking about a meta-level reboot, here. Not “Flash goes back in time and changes things so we have a new universe.” That’s a story-level/in-character reboot. I’m talking about DC saying “We’ve told all the stories we’re going to from that version of our mythology, here’s the new reset version, and we’re treating this new continuity as though it’s always been the only continuity.”)

Ten years is not a limitation, not really. There are very few stories you can’t tell in that length, or with that amount of continuity.

Oh, and something else this would do? This would allow superheroes–who are supposed to be embodiments of justice–to actually deliver some. Because the way things are now, “justice” as a concept doesn’t exist in mainstream comic books. But that’s a future blog entry.

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Warning: Serious Comic Book Geekery ahead

Posted on November 2, 2013 at 9:57 PM
Nov 022013

I’ve been watching a lot of cartoons in my spare time recently. Because I am (ostensibly) an adult, and therefore I can choose to fill my hours this way. :-P

Now, we all know that there are almost no superhero powers that stand up to close examination. And normally, I just accept that. I don’t worry about what actually propels Superman when he flies, or the precise mechanism by which Spider-man sticks to walls (except when it’s handled stupidly).

But… There’s one that I cannot stop nitpicking in my mind.

Let’s talk super-speed.

Both Superman and the Flash have, in various incarnations, been given different maximum speeds, but even when they’re not breaking the speed of light, they’re still fast enough to circle the world in a matter of minutes.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Flash would have to be just as invulnerable as Superman to even survive that. I’m nitpicking at more of a story level.

Flash has to be able to react at that speed, too.

So… There is zero–literally zero–way that any human could pose a threat. None.

Lots of fight scenes between Flash and people with mechanical gimmicks involve him running just out of reach of lasers or freeze rays or whatever, until he works his way closer. Or a villain catching him by surprise and shooting him with something from behind.

Thing is, a fight between Flash and anyone who doesn’t have equivalent speed should basically look like a quick flash of light, followed by a smear on the wall.

We’re talking about someone whose reaction time is such that, if you did shoot him from ambush, he can move out of the way between the time the bullet hits his skin and the time it actually starts to penetrate. Let alone between the time the trigger’s pulled and the hammer falls, or travel time after the bullet leaves the gun.

You can’t hold someone hostage. You can’t hold down a dead man’s switch and threaten to blow up a building. None of that matters, because Flash or Superman can have the device out of your hand not only before you can use it, but before the signal that says “Hey, he moved!” has traveled from your eyes to your brain.

I know, this is pure nerd-ranting. But it bugs me in a way that other power discrepancies don’t, because it’s so clearly plot-specific. It’s not even that Flash’s or Superman’s speed (for example) varies from story to story, it varies in the midst of a story. And it varies this way because otherwise it’d be damn near impossible for writers to threaten these characters.

So here’s an idea. Why the hell make them that inhuman?

Isn’t it enough that Superman can lift an oil tanker? Does he really need to be able to push the moon out of orbit? (Again, leaving aside the whole “He’d go through it before it moved” issue.) In Marvel comics–IIRC–Quicksilver can run at several hundred miles an hour. Isn’t that–or even several thousand–enough? Does the Flash have to be able to reach a good portion of the speed of light?

I know, I know. I’m ranting. It’s “just comic books.” (And for those who can’t read my tone over the internet, this is a tongue-in-cheek rant. It’s something I’m poking at because I’m a geek who loves this stuff, not because I’m genuinely pissed or anything.)

But even in “just comic books,” I prefer well-told stories to poorly told ones. And when your main character’s abilities are determined by what s/he’s facing–by the needs of the plot, not what’s been established–that doesn’t lead to well-told stories.

You may now proceed to throw tomatoes at me and tell me to lighten up.  :-P

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An Open Letter to Marvel Studios

Posted on November 1, 2013 at 9:39 PM
Nov 012013

(As if there were a chance in hell of them seeing it.) ;-)

I’ve seen, in a couple of different interviews now, Kevin Feige make comments to the effect of “It’s great to have Daredevil and the Punisher back in our hands, but we’re sitting on them for now, because we’re not sure yet what to do with them.”

We have also been told that you guys are getting into TV in a big way, in the near future.

And we know that one of the most common complaints leveled at Agents of SHIELD is that it doesn’t have enough crossover with actual known characters.

Surely I cannot be the only one seeing the opportunity here.

Daredevil is a costumed superhero. He has name recognition. He’s flashy. He’s action-oriented. And–this is important–both his own superpowers, and the superpowers of most characters associated with him, are special effects-lite. In other words, cheap.

The character has some amazing story arcs, tales that absolutely cannot be done justice in a single two-hour movie. I have two words for you: “Born Again.”

Daredevil is not such a big name that you’re risking anything by putting him on TV rather than in a movie. Especially after the reception of Fox’s earlier attempt at the character, the odds of making a truly successful Daredevil movie are not nearly as big as other characters–but that could change if the character first establishes a fanbase on TV.

And because it would be on TV, you can cast to the character without worrying one tiny bit about star power. If you want to do a movie later, and the series is successful, you’ll have made your own.

And hey, who would make a great recurring guest star, sometimes ally, sometimes enemy? With potential for his own spinoff if this version of the character proves popular? Why, one Frank “The Punisher” Castle. He’s tough to do on network TV, but not impossible.

And crossover episodes with Agents of SHIELD would be viable, because DD isn’t beyond the power range of a “normal” human; you can threaten him and Coulson’s team with the same adversary in the right storyline.

Seriously, guys. I’m not an expert, but from the PoV of both an author (including one who has worked with licensed characters) and a fan, I’m really not seeing a downside to this. Why is this not happening?

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A Moment of Your Time, Please

Posted on October 7, 2013 at 7:08 PM
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Oct 072013

Folks, this doesn’t actually have any direct bearing on my work at all. It’s just something about which I’m reaching out to everyone I can, and you guys are part of “everyone I can.”

Eugie Foster is an amazing writer–and an amazing person. She’s a dear friend. And she’s just been diagnosed with cancer. Please consider buying something to help her out, in this time of great financial (among other) stress. It’d mean a lot to her, and to me. You can about it–her situation, and which books/stories of hers are most helpful, financially–here: http://www.eugiefoster.com/a-little-help-from-my-friends.htm

Thank you so much, for anything you can do.

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