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.
DO NOT FUCKING WASTE IT.
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.