Go Ahead, Shoot The Baby

Good news: I finished the novel. Better news: I still have to do some editing, so I’m reserving a portion of this week for that purpose. Best news: that means you still get some guest posts from some awesome human beings. First up this week is Stephen Blackmoore, an all around awesome dude and great urban fantasy writer. His first book, CITY OF THE LOST, drops next year, and the follow-up, DEAD THINGS, not long after. In fact, I just had the pleasure of reading DEAD THINGS, and it was one of the most gripping books I read all of last year. So. Here’s Stephen, then. Don’t forget to check out his website, LA NOIR, and follow the man on Der Twittermachine: @sblackmoore.

I’ve been watching a lot of film noir from the forties and fifties over at Noir City, the noir film festival going on this month at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and I’ve noticed something that’s been bothering me.

There are a lot of happy endings.

Sure, people die. There’s betrayal, shattered dreams, physical and psychological torture. But come on, you don’t have that you don’t have film noir. But with few exceptions the protagonists not only survive, they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Seriously, what the fuck?

Take the film THE HUNTED (**spoilers ahead, but that’s okay because chances are you’ll never see this movie**) with Preston Foster and Belita, who’s got to have one of the weirdest careers in film noir history. It’s about a cop who sent his lover up the river for robbery four years before and she might not have done it. Now she’s out on parole after vowing (cue dramatic chord) vengeance.

There’s a creepy factor, Foster was 48 when he made this movie and Belita’s character is 20, which means his character was banging her when she was sixteen, so that’s nicely disturbing. But that one scene where everything is supposed to climax in a hail of bullets and they kill each other before discovering she’s been cleared of the robbery and a subsequent murder?

Doesn’t happen. He gets shot in the shoulder. Shrugs it off. Her Electra complex is in full swing so she forgives him for railroading her into Tehachapi for four years. They jet off to Paris.

This is film noir cock block at its worst. Instead of walloping you with the haymaker you’re waiting for it taps you on the cheek in a pissy little slapfight. An otherwise interesting little film gets ruined because it pussies out at the last minute.

And that’s the writer lesson for today. Don’t pull your punches.

Everybody’s got a line they don’t want to cross. Ideas they’re not comfortable with. And those lines tend to extend into the things they like to read. I’m not saying it’s a one to one. Most of us, well, most of you, don’t really want to murder people.

But we’re just fine watching it on teevee. At least until we run into one of our lines.

There’s this thing in publishing I keep hearing about how if you hurt animals or children in your book you’ll alienate readers and get hate mail. Everything else is fair game.

Go ahead, eat the dismembered corpse of your antagonist. Lop off his head and ram it onto a stick. Just don’t shoot the baby.

You know what? Fuck that. Shoot the baby.

Your readers’ boundaries are there to be used. Violence, sex, torture, whatever. Those lines they don’t want you to cross, beat on them with a baseball bat. They’re chinks in their emotional armor. They’re exploitable. And whether you like the idea or not, as a writer you’re a dirty, lying manipulator.

Case in point, the novel BOULEVARD by Stephen Jay Schwartz. It’s about an LAPD vice cop who’s a sex addict. So, you know, it’s got sex. Lots of sex. Oooooh. Sex. Sex sex sex.

And it makes your skin crawl.

Schwartz has got sex scenes in this book that make you want to bathe in turpentine. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, explicit. There’s nothing erotic in it. It’s like watching an alcoholic go on a weekend bender.

He doesn’t pull his punches and instead of titillating, it’s tragic. And when it clicks just how fucked up this guy’s life is Schwartz owns you.

Now there is one thing about this I will say you can’t, must not, never, ever, ever do. Really.


It’s like that Bugs Bunny / Daffy Duck cartoon where they’re competing for the best vaudeville act and Daffy wins by blowing himself up. The audience cheers and Bugs tells him they love the act. His response?

“I know, I know, but I can only do it once.”

You got one shot at this. Do not fuck it up. The only thing worse than pulling your punches is swinging and missing.

You see it all the time. A killing that’s just there because the writer is trying to be edgy. There’s no emotional impact. It’s not there for the story, it’s there so the writer can jump up and down and go, “Look at me! I’m one of the cool kids! Watch me swing my dick around! It does tricks!”

That right there is what we mean by gratuitous. Don’t be gratuitous.

Unless you’re showing nudity. Then be as gratuitous as you like.

I mean, come on, that shit sells.

22 responses to “Go Ahead, Shoot The Baby”

  1. Um, I think my book is YA. So no dismembered corpse-eating, no baby shooting. Not even any dick-waving-around-of. Just dragons & stuff. Sure people die, but not in a messy way. God forbid teenagers should see any messy deaths.

    • @Natalie:

      YA seems to be getting grislier and grislier, though.

      I mean, while Hunger Games doesn’t relish in gore (mmm, gore relish), the deaths are brutal.

      Hunger Games definitely shoots the baby.

      — c.

  2. Uh … quick question. Who is the author of this guest post now? Because in paragraph 1 you say it is Stephen Blackmoore …

    Only to put this sentence in right after that:

    “Anywho, here then is a guest post from game designer and big brain, the Evil Hat hisownself, Fred Hicks. His website is here. And don’t forget to follow him on the Twitters.”

    I am a little confused … 🙂

    • @Frank:

      Fixed. It is, indeed, the mighty Stephen Blackmoore.

      For some reason, in WP that text wasn’t showing up in the “visual” editor, but remained in the HTML editor.

      Thanks for the catch!

      — c.

  3. Heh. Those prettied up endings are what I call “Happily Ever Apples”. They’re force fed to us by the bushel as kids thanks to movies where the Little Mermaid gets her legs and doesn’t die and Quasimodo doesn’t die clutching Esmeralda’s corpse. Somehow along the way “happy” endings replaced “right” endings for most people, it seems.

    (Natalie, you might want to go read you some newer YA. It can be just as gritty and edgy as the adult stuff. The Hunger Games isn’t exactly light on blood or body counts, and there’s some pretty dark contemporary stuff out there, too.)

  4. *Chews on glasses arm* So what you’re saying, Ser Blackmoore, is to go there. But only go there when necessary, when it’s unavoidable and when it’s the best payoff ever. Got it. *takes notes*

    @ Natalie

    Hunger Games. Marbury Lens. Tender Morsels. They all go there, and beyond.

    Besides, I don’t think he’s strictly talking about violence here. In a noir context, yeah it’s mostly about violence. Outside of that, I think its about payoff. Don’t set up your story to end with an explosion only to have your characters skip off into the sunset. Misfires like that are disappointing to read/watch and will likely alienate your audience faster than killing the baby in the first place.

    • @Kate:

      Right. And it’s not just about plot payoff or even character payoff — it can be about tonal payoff, too. A grim-dark tale that ends on a weird and sudden upswing betrays its own sensibilities. It’s why a movie like Seven (Se7en?) works so well — it dares not deviate from the tone it sets in the opening moments. Hell, it sets that tone in the opening *credits.*

      — c.

  5. Great post, Stephen! I hate it when Hollywood pulls its punches. I really, really wanted the end of “Moon” to be bleak and nihilistic, but instead they went for HEA. Losers.

    Me, I really don’t like gruesome violence in books, but putting characters (and therefore readers) through the emotional wringer? Absolutely!

  6. I love this cause its so true.

    Even as a kid, I was fascinated by anime. But back in the day, when it was known for being gritty, dark, violent and erotic. It captivated me. AKIRA had my soul. And that’s when I was a kid!

    My current most favorite fantasy novel is Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy. I will admit, I had trouble reading the first book. It has physical and sexual abuse of children. And from there the sex/rape, violence and torture extends to the adult characters too.

    But despite all that, I still love it. The story is gripping. It’s graphic, I know, but there’s something addicting about that sort of thing.

    But while Noir probably needs an unhappy ending, I like my happily ever afters (or at least a tiny one where like at least overall the worst of it is “over” even if we lost like nearly everyone), especially when a baby or ten get shot.

    Otherwise, I’m crying for a week.

  7. Fantastic advice. This is something I recently dealt with when I was writing a scene in a short story.

    It was disturbing. I didn’t want to write the way it needed to be written. Because it eeked me out. (That is a very technical, writer-y term. I SWEAR.) But for the story and the characters? It needed to be disturbing. So, I wrote the damn scene, and it still makes my skin all crawly. I suspect that means I did something right.

    But man, shooting that baby? Never easy. Thank you for this post. It is a damn good reminder.

  8. Movie studios, especially the old-school ones hate downer endings. Jesus, look at what they did with the end of THE GOLDEN COMPASS. They totally nerfed that one.

    I know that some Hollywood suit went white when he read the book and said [spoiler alert] “no way is the audience going to stand for Daniel Craig murdering a child to open the gate to another world.”

    This is why I often prefer the book to the movie.

  9. JD ~ UGH, don’t even get me STARTED on what they did to THE GOLDEN COMPASS. That book series was fantastic. But they left so much out, and changed so much else, that it made me completely snarky. Although, I almost excused it, because Daniel Craig IS gorgeous. And I totally didn’t want to watch James Bond try to murder a child. BUT STILL.

  10. What he said. Kill the baby indeed. Ken Bruen did it, and since he did it on the last page, you could even argue it was gratuitous. Sometimes even the sucker punch works. 🙂

  11. I was discussing this just yesterday with my husband after seeing Hanna. Overall, just fantastic film, but we were wondering about what happens to the van family (I will not spoil this.) Wright doesn’t cross the line, and we were considering whether the effect is more effectively creepy or unsatisfying cop-out. It is a fine line sometimes, and I think the difficulty is in the audience. Here is an example of a thoughtful, well-crafted movie being marketed to mass audiences as a pretty ordinary thriller. How do audiences react to undeserved violence meted out to innocents and (especially) children? Is it a deal-breaker?

  12. Thanks for the comments, folks. Glad y’all can find this helpful.

    When it comes down to it I think it’s really about being true to the story you’re telling. Not every story is going to have a scene about shooting a dog, or a zombie eating a hooker or your protagonist beating a guy to death with a midget.

    It could be as innocuous as them discovering an unpleasant truth about themselves or someone they love. If you stay true to your story and be somewhat mindful of your audience you’ll be fine.

    I say somewhat mindful because ultimately I don’t think any of us know our audience as well as we might think. No matter what you do you’re probably going to piss somebody off and some of the people you think you’re going to piss off you probably won’t.

  13. It really depends what you’re writing and the subject matter. I write about a 10 year old huckster who pulls scams on his church and family. Crossing boundaries? You don’t have to show blood an throbbing members to shock. I live by Nabokov’s saying (paraphrased), “More people will more horrified by a strange hair on their soap than a head on their doorstep.”

  14. My takeaway from this is that you shouldn’t build up to something if you’re not going to deliver, unless that tension or denial can itself up the ante and make the reader feel like they’re eagerly waiting for the next shoe to drop. If everyone is as they seem and nothing shocks or surprises, then it starts to feel more like a grocery list than a story, and leaves the reader thinking “What, that’s it?”

    However, I’ve read plenty of stories that seem to deviate into incomprehensible violence or gore that serve no other purpose than for the author, I guess, to say “Hey look, I went there!” without it really making any sense. In those cases, it feels like it detracts from the story and distracts me from what has come before and after. If I’m reading military science fiction, and there’s a gruesome description of what happens when the space pirates (or even the supposedly good space patrol) ravages a civilian convoy, then that reminds me of what a gritty, dangerous world the author has created. But if it’s largely bubbly Space Opera and the author suddenly diverges into something equally unpleasant, I’ll have to wonder if he’s just going for a cheap emotional gotcha for lack of anything else to write.

    As long as I know what I’m getting into, I want my expectations to be met and exceeded in making me feel emotionally attached, and I’ll avoid those books that are on topics or contain plots I don’t care for. It’s the same reason I don’t spend all my time watching torture-porn horror flicks or actual pornography, since simply being outrageous and visceral does not a good story make.

    An author failing to deliver the goods I expect is bad, but pulling a bait and switch or slapping me in the face with gratuitous scenes is worse.

  15. @mattaui

    That’s pretty much my point. If there’s no emotional payoff to doing it, if it’s just there to show off, don’t do it.

    But at the same time I’d say take some risks. I’m not saying go for something horrendous just for the sake of doing so, but if you’re asking yourself if you should take a story somewhere dark and you back off because you’re afraid, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.

    It really depends on what you’re writing, what fits and what doesn’t. You’re the only person who can decide what’s right for your story.

    Worst case is you edit it out later.

  16. Love this post. Yes, it’s all about the emotional payoff. Not shock value or torture/gore/angst for its own sake, but taking the reader on an emotional journey and delivering what you promised. And that requires set-up. You can’t just throw something into the mix without in some way leading up to it, even if the reader doesn’t see the lead up until after you take them there. If that makes sense.

    A while back I put a first chapter up on my blog for a limited time and asked for feedback (it’s gone now, don’t go looking) and the comment that surprised me the most was from someone who loved a certain supporting character and said, “You’d better not kill him!” And I thought, hmmmm, maybe I should… But there was no good reason to kill him (doing so didn’t add more to the emotional impact than it would have taken away). Plus there were several very good reasons to keep him around.

    And I think BOULEVARD just shifted its way a bit closer to the top of my TBR pile. So many books, so few hours of consciousness.

  17. The fact that Harry Connelly does in essence “shoot the baby” with his opening scene of CHILD OF FIRE is part of why I love his writing so hard, even if sometimes I need to set it down for a bit to get my bearings back.

    And on the topic of death and messy things in YA fiction, check out Garth Nix’s SHADE’S CHILDREN sometime, in which children mentored by an AI nuclear sub are used as tools of war. Featuring the most heartbreaking spreadsheet ever seen.

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