Category Archives: Frog Jones

The Difference Between Darkness and Murk

When I was in my sophomore year, we all had to write a short story about whatever we wanted. Now, I’m not sure what I wrote; the assignment didn’t stick in my head because of what did.

No, the assignment stuck in my head because of what my buddy Jacob did.

See, Jacob went for the most gruesome splatter-based horror story he could. It was the sort of story you’d expect from a tenth-grader, badly written and dripping in gore. At one point a series of people got taken out by a snowplow. Amongst all our friends, it was generally agreed that Jacob had produced a work of pure genius, to rival those of Poe himself. He got a C-.

That story was so “awesome” to my tenth-grade self that I kept a copy of it. And while I was in college a couple of years later, I stumbled across it and re-read the stupid thing. I immediately concluded that “C-” had been generous. Grammar errors aside, the story structure had less cohesiveness than an average porn movie. Oh, the bodies were stacked up like cordwood, but that’s all the thing had going for it. That sanguine veneer covered exactly…nothing.

Now, none of this should come as a surprise to any readers here, save perhaps the fact that I’m talking about a writing assignment from High School at all. Of course it sucked-we were in the tenth grade.

But every time I sit down to try to write something dark, I remember that stupid story. I remember how fascinated I was by it, and then how terrible it was. Those two extreme reactions are interesting and paradoxical enough that they form the core of my thinking about writing dark. And they’re the reason I rarely do it.

Dark writing is often used as a way to cover up bad writing. And it should never, ever be.

There’s a lot of posts going on this month about pulpy fun. And that’s fine, so long as that’s the contract between the reader and the writer. Reader goes in expecting pulpy fun, reader gets pulpy fun, all is well in the world. But doing an intentionally pulpy story is one thing; being dark because it’s a substitute for being good is another.

Let’s take this to cinema for a second. You know why nobody liked Man of Steel? Because Grimdark Superman isn’t a thing. Zach Snyder took on the admittedly steep challenge of doing the Big Blue Boy Scout and completely muffed it. Superman’s a tough character to write specifically because you can’t simply go dark to get a serious edge to your story. You have to have a purely morally upright hero. It can be done–and done very, very well–but it pulls that crutch out from underneath you.

Which should only serve to point out that there is a crutch here.

So, writing good dark fiction requires that one be aware of the fact that going dark can be a crutch. Keep it in your head at all times, because every time you add to the body count there should be a purpose to it. Every murder, every horrible monster; you need to look at the thing you’re trying to evoke in your reader. If it’s pulpy, campy fun, then fine; be up front that you’re going to have pulpy, campy fun. But if you want a really good, dark, horrific story then the first thing you have to do is stop thinking of it as a dark story and just think of it as a story.

Your characters still need to be well-rounded. They still have to have real emotions, still have to think and be motivated realistically. If you have a villain–even one whose goal it is to go about gruesomely murdering people, then that villain needs to have reasons for what he or she is doing. Arguably one of the best horror villains written is Hannibal Lecter, and he’s not great because of his victims. He’s great because his murders stand out in stark contrast to his erudite intellectualism. He’s terrifying because we like him.

So, in short; the trick to writing good, dark fiction is to stop thinking of it as dark fiction. Write your characters. Give them a full life, and let the readers love them for who they are. Watching some random, faceless murdered commit atrocities is fun. Watching a character you love commit atrocities is terrifying.

Two Cathedrals

A Guest Post by Frog Jones

We live in a golden age for television shows. Netflix has surrounded us by amazing, boundary-pushing videos, HBO is constantly upping its game, and the cable networks have had no choice but to follow suit. Even among this eruption of great television, and as devoted a fan as I am to basically all of it, I continue to hold that there is no greater hour of television made than “Two Cathedrals,” the season 2 finale of The West Wing.

And yet, I’ve never really broken down why.

First off, we have to place the episode in context. Sorkin did a great job of building to the moment for this one, and so the audience approaches “Two Cathedrals” already having some information. That’s handy, for a writer; laying the exposition elsewhere lets you spend a great deal of time bringing nothing but impact later on. For a similar effect, watch the first “Avengers” movie; almost no exposition was necessary, because that got taken care of in the initial, individual character films.

enhanced-buzz-27204-1361238426-0 (1)So, coming into “Two Cathedrals,” we know some things. We know that President Bartlet has been concealing his Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis from the public, and that the team is getting ready to break the news. We know that the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not he will announce his candidacy for re-election. And we know that his secretary, the much-loved Mrs. Landingham, was killed by a drunk driver the previous night.

The show opens with a number of discussions that make it clear the Democratic party wants Bartlet to step down, anoint a chosen successor. The president’s mind, though, is on Mrs. Landingham. We get flashbacks to his past, revealing his complicated relationship with her. On the show to date, Mrs. Landingham has constantly been the one person who at no point took any guff from the president, and now we see why. She’s not just his secretary; she was his self-appointed big sister—the one who became his family while his father abused him. And she recruits him to stand up to his father on behalf of the women on staff at the private school where he is a headmaster.

LandinghamHe is, initially, reluctant. But after Mrs. Landingham “gives him numbers,” he is forced with a choice: do the right thing, or do the easy thing. Mrs. Landingham makes that apparent, telling him that if he’s simply denying her request because he’s scared to do what he knows is right then, “gosh, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.” Young Jed sticks his hands in his pockets, turns away, and smiles. Mrs. Landingham tells him (and us) that this means he’s made his decision, and he is going to do it.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s the next scene that makes this episode great. Everything builds to it, and it is not repeat not the climax to the story. Jim Butcher has long advocated for a writing technique called the “big middle,” in which a massive event in the middle of the book is the focus of the first half of the book, and catapults the story forward. “Two Cathedrals” makes expert use of this technique, rising the audience to an epic showdown between President Bartlet…and God.

two landinghamsStanding in the National Cathedral, Bartlet asks the Secret Service to clear the building, leaving him alone in the massive House of God. Approaching the altar, Bartlet begins to list his grievances. A devout, educated Catholic, he addresses God in Latin. He blames God for the list of wrongs in his presidency, and asks God why the right things he has done have not been enough for him. His anger grows as he talks to his Maker without response, and as he loses control of himself he switches back to the schoolboy. His father and The Father become conflated, and he looses a tirade of cursing, entirely in Latin, at God, while standing before the altar of the National Cathedral. It is, in short, breathtaking.

And it ends by giving us the answer to the question everyone has been asking. “You get Hoynes,” Bartlet says as he throws down a cigarette on the floor of the cathedral, one last act of rebellion against his father and his Father.

The rest of the episode proceeds with the staff learning of Bartlet’s decision. Toby is presented with a “life boat,” a job offer lined up for him by Leo; he rejects it, then immediately begins to yell at Leo for even presuming he’d take it. Leo assure Toby that he never considered Toby would take the job; Toby inquires as to why he set it up.

“To show him that,” responds Leo. One character, only one, that believes Bartlet is going to change his mind. Toby’s eyes widen as he realizes what Leo is saying; that Leo knows Bartlet better than he knows himself.

And in doing so, Leo gives us the string of hope that’s keeping us going. Bartlet’s already made his decision, and made it in a big, climactic way, but Leo’s move opens that door just a crack. Just enough to keep the audience engaged, while continuing to despair. It’s perfect. It’s brilliant. And it sets up what happens next.

Throughout the episode, an unusual storm has been brewing. Also, the latch on the portico door to the Oval Office has been broken. These two events, having been hung on the wall earlier in the episode, culminate as the storm rips open the door and, on reflex, President Bartlet calls out for Mrs. Landingham.

Then his face falls as he realizes what he’s done. But only for a moment.

Because, at this moment, Mrs. Landingham walks through the door and chides him for yelling. Whether she is an instrument of God or simply a figment of Bartlet’s imagination is left to the audience, but she delivers God’s retort to the accusations Bartlet made back in the National Cathedral. The counter-arguments culminate in Bartlet “giving himself numbers,” a move designed to line up with the earlier conversation. If Bartlet is simply not running for re-election because it’s going to be too hard, then “well, gosh, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”

After this the episode is all denouement. A musical sequence culminating in Bartlet standing before a press conference, being asked whether he is running, ends with him sticking his hands in his pockets, turning away, and smiling. We all know what that means.

The pacing of “Two Cathedrals” is breathtaking, and it is easily the best example I can point to of visual media completely nailing the “big middle” concept. The middle of any story is the hardest thing to right, the thing that bogs the story down into exposition and dragging characters from point A to point B. By executing a “Big Middle,” a mini-climax in the book, “Two Cathedrals” absolutely rockets its pacing forward, keeping its audience gripped. This trick of writing, in addition to some fabulous acting on the part of Sheen and everyone else, makes this episode quite possibly the best hour of television ever produced.

Frog JonesFrog Jones writes with his wife, Esther. After a ten-year vow to never show each other a word they had written, they eventually broke down and wrote a novel together. Together, they have published the Gift of Grace series from Sky Warrior Books, as well as short stories in anthologies such as How Beer Saved the World, First Contact Café, and Tales from an Alien Campfire, as well as many more. The Joneses live on the Puget Sound in the State of Washington with Oxeye, who is twenty-five pounds of pure bunny. Frog’s works can be found at http://www.jonestales.com, and he also appears on the Three Unwise Men podcast at http://3unwisemen.com.

Frog-Grace

 

Regarding the Humble Blowfish: A Guest Post by Frog Jones

A guest post by Frog Jones.

In my day job, I’m a public defender. This means, among other things, that any time I am placed on panels at conventions, invariably one of those panels will be the “What Makes A Good Villain” panel. After years of giving this panel, I can say with a certainty that the question of how to build a really solid, evil character is one of the harder challenges in writing.

Because here’s the thing: humans don’t set out to be evil. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to themselves “That’s it. Time to go dark. I am going to start the killing with…you.” Doesn’t happen that way. No, evil is a slow, insidious process of a thousand decisions, each one of which appears to be completely correct at the time, but the sum total of which is a monster.tumblr_lw80vfKeXS1qaselw (1)

I’m talking about villains, here. Not just antagonists; that can be any opposing force. I’m talking about truly evil people who want to do truly evil things. Writing someone like that who doesn’t come off as a mustache-twirling dude in a top hat next to a woman whom he has strapped to some train tracks is a real trick.

And this is why I want to talk about Walter White.

Walter is, in the beginning of the series, just a normal guy. He teaches high school 1e6ef57e6d5035c88257d69d70da7f1baa439711-thumbstudents, has a wife and a disabled son. He works a second job at a car wash to pay the bills, and even then the family is just barely getting by. They cannot afford a new water heater. Still, it’s his pride to be the guy taking care of his family. He’s constantly under stress, but he takes that stress and bottles it down because, well, that’s what you do.

Fast forward to Season Five, and Walter White is a drug lord with no compunctions about murdering for his territory or threatening his family. He is, by anyone’s account, evil.

Breaking-Bad-Season-5Now, I’m not saying you have to write five seasons of a television series to get a believable villain into your plot. But I do recommend that you figure out how and why your villain broke bad. And Walter White is a great model of the basic things you need to get there.

For Walter, the cancer triggered him. Once he knows he’s dying of cancer, he realizes he will no longer be able to take care of his family. And that right there? It’s the one thing he had. Oh, he’s not rich like his college buddy who didn’t sell his stock early, but he is taking care of his family. It’s the one thing he has to be proud about.

This pride? It’s normally considered a virtue in society. Walter wants to make sure that he’s the guy who provides, not someone else. Good on him, right? Way to stand up and take responsibility. Way to “be a man.”you-cannot-hold-your-head-high-with-your-hand-out-quote-1

So now we have a series of pressures placed on Walter. One is his financial pressure, because he never has enough money to provide for the basics of life. The next is his self-applied pressure to provide for the family himself. When the cancer comes along, it adds a ticking clock. Now Walter has to make a significant amount of money very, very quickly, because to do otherwise would be to fail in his responsibility to his family.

See what happened there? Not a bad guy. Just a guy put in a position where all the pressures on him forced him into a situation where the next choice seems perfectly logical. If you’re a professional chemist, and you need to make a lot of money very quickly, then cooking meth makes a lot of sense.

This right here? This is the point where you need to take your villain. It may be backstory, in your case; it certainly was in mine. But in the life of every evil person, and I know this as someone who spends his entire life working with evil people, there is a series of decisions that lead, inevitably, to damnation. And it starts with one.

Walter’s decision is wrong. But it’s perfectly logical. It makes sense. He’s going to die anyways, so the legal consequences aren’t really a big deal. He needs the money. Someone is going to sell meth to these junkies, and that meth will be laced with all kinds of other things, because they aren’t nearly as good at this as Walter.

This is the moment. The moment where your villain goes wrong. The moment where he or she makes the decision to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. After that, it’s a slow and gradual slide into hell.

Not every story can or should be Breaking Bad. But everyone who wants to write an evil character should watch Breaking Bad, because it is a perfect case study in how a villain is born.

 

About Frog Jones

Frog Jones writes with his wife, Esther. After a ten-year vow to never show each other a word they had written, they eventually broke down and wrote a novel together. Together, they have published the Gift of Grace series from Sky Warrior Books, as well as short stories in anthologies such as How Beer Saved the World, First Contact Café, and Tales from an Alien Campfire, as well as many more.

The Joneses live on the Puget Sound in the State of Washington with Oxeye, who is twenty-five pounds of pure bunny. Frog’s works can be found at http://www.jonestales.com, and he also appears on the Three Unwise Men podcast at http://3unwisemen.com.