The one where Pam overwrites THE DARK KNIGHT

There’s a key lesson in here for writers of any sort, whether you’re doing journalism in Papers of News, writing one-act plays that begin and end with ten minutes of silence, or banging on the keyboard for the next Great American Novel, except you’re in New Zealand, and think the whole concept of the Great American Novel is sillypants.

Pam sums it up like this: “Less is more.”

She’s right. Also, bonus points for the assignment at the end of this video. Too funny.

P.S. Yes, I know the first trailer for THE BATMAN is out. No, I will not dissect it, because 94,230 superfans have already watched it, frame by frame, to look for specific pixels that might give them an easter egg or theory that nobody else thought about yet. But yeah, I liked it. Looking forward to seeing that, and other movies, in actual movie theaters next year with overpriced popcorn and sticky floors and all the things that I miss.

Screenwriting 101 tips – The one where Pam ruins PULP FICTION

Loved this one, sis — too funny, and all true.

You need excitement and activity and danger and conflict. But piling it on subtracts from the tension and stress. More is less, and less is more. Contrast and texture FTW!

Writing secret: What two-sentence stories can teach us all

Maybe you’re writing a 140,000-word epic about a time-traveling Wookie who kills Hitler and invents the polio vaccine. Or you’re cranking out 500-word stories for a Paper of News.

Doesn’t matter.

Less is always, always more.

Nobody complains about a speech being too short, or a movie ending too soon. Always leave the audience wanting more, and always cut whatever you can. A word, a sentence, an entire scene that’s repetitive because we already saw the Wookie find that double-bladed lightsaber which she used to impress the British major-general and let her board the first landing craft at Normandy.

It works in the opposite direction, too. Headlines and hooks can’t be 100 words–you’re talking a sentence or two. Pitches, blurbs, dialogue, just about everything you can think of benefits from stripping away the fat to reveal sleek, practical, essential muscle.

Once you strip it all away, it becomes clear how great writing works and bad writing falls off the Cliff of Despair and tumbles into the Pit of Absolute Rubbish.

The easiest places to see this? Two sentence stories.

Check out these five, then we’ll chat.

Number 1, The Classic

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.”

I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

Author unknown, and yes, this version is a little wordy. Let’s cut it down.

 

“Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.”

I peeked under the cover and my son stared back as he whispered, “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.”

 

Every father’s nightmare. You’ll do anything to protect your sons and daughters. How would you handle this impossible choice?

Number 2

“Now be careful, that line of rock salt is the only thing keeping them out,” the man said, welcoming my group into his refuge.

“Sea salt,” I clarified, “sea salt keeps us out.”
https://www.reddit.com/user/bookseer/

This is good, right? A great setup for a horror movie. Bring it.

Number 3

Bullets flew through the mall, ripping clothes to shreds.

In the chaos, no one noticed the mannequins bleeding.
https://www.reddit.com/user/proffessorbiscuit/

Did not see this coming. At all. Well played, Professor Biscuit.

Number 4

The sound of my son calling for my help grew fainter and fainter.

As the batteries in my hearing aides died, I realized it would soon be impossible for me to find him in time.
https://www.reddit.com/user/minithemermaid/

 

The first three are fantasy and unrealistic.

This one is quite real, and I believe it’s scarier because of it.

Number 5

“I forgot to grab something, I’ll be right back,” said Mom.

As she rounded the corner, out of sight, the cashier began ringing up our groceries.
https://www.reddit.com/user/undflight/

Here we go: comedy instead of horror. We’ve all felt that stab of panic as our wife, husband, son or mother leaves you in line at Safeway or Costco “to grab something real quick,” then you stand there, waiting forever as the person in front of you finishes checking out and you empty your cart onto the belt slower and slower as there is absolutely no sign of them, and the checker starts giving you the side eye because there are four people waiting behind your slow butt, so what is your problem, so where are there, did they get lost or kidnapped, and should you leave the line to save them from a serial killer only to get embarrassed when they show up with that bottle of white wine they were looking for? WHERE ARE THEY, AND SHOULD WE CALL THE POLICE?

So yeah, this one is funny, and a little horrific, because we have all been there. And will be there again.

What two-sentence stories can teach us all

Every genre of writing tends to get wrapped up in its own pet jargon, theories, practices, and templates.

A news story has to use the inverted pyramid. Every press release needs a first-graf lede, then a quote in the second graf. Detective heroes are alcoholic loner rebels paired up with a square sidekick who has a family.

Two-sentence stories toss all of that and return us to the basics.

The first sentence is a setup, making us curious about what happens next.

In the second sentence, we get the payoff.

That’s it.

Comedians are doing the same thing, which is why most jokes are two-sentences. All you need is a setup and a payoff.

Sure, it helps to add more flourishes, and a longer story–or joke–can have a greater payoff.

Look again at those four examples. There isn’t a single name to any character, no description of their age, hair, face, body, backstory. Zero.

Because you don’t need those things to generate interest.

Homework

Do some two-sentence stories. A joke, a horror story, a shocking idea. Whatever.

Then take whatever you’re writing and boil it down to two sentences. Setup and payoff.

Note: making each sentence 400 words is not okay, Cheaty McCheatypants.

Writing secret–emotions are everything

I believe our natural instincts–to write not to fail, and follow all the rules–tends to strip our ability to evoke emotion in readers. And no matter type of writing you do–poems, screenplays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles–the trick is getting something to resonate with the reader.

That doesn’t happen with facts or logic, though both of those elements have their place.

It happens emotionally.

Viscerally.

The best writing makes you laugh and cry, smell and taste, hope and fear. It awakens something inside of you.

So: I believe, deep in my evil little soul, that every writer is trying for this, consciously or not.

Except 99 percent of pieces I read miss the target. Wide left or wide right. Not because of grammar or syntax, or breaking any of the rules you were taught from kindergarten through college. There are technically sound pieces published ten times a second that follow the rules, except none of that matters because the text utterly fails to resonate in the reader’s emotional core.

Which is a waste, both of talent and good material.

In journalism school, they drill us to be objective and factual. Spock-like, unless you’re doing a flowery feature story, in which case you’re allowed to show the subjects expressing some emotion, though you have to be invisible, My Young Reporter, invisible and unseen and unmoved by any of the joys or horrors that you’re witnessing. Fiery car crash? Give us the who, what, when, where, and why. Cute little girl with a pet turtle that plays soccer with her in the backyard? Spend the last line of the piece inverted pyramid style by telling us the color of the little girl’s house.

I’ve discovered, the hard way, that (a) emotions matter most and (b) few writers are trained in how to evoke them. Believe me, I felt plenty of emotion covering those fiery car wrecks, little kids with turtles or hedgehogs, and murder scenes. You always feel something. It wouldn’t be worth covering if you didn’t.

If evoking emotion is important to all writing, how do you do it?

My old friend Robin Boyes had the first step. He said, “You have to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel.” He was a speechwriter and coach, so that advice was aimed first at speakers. Except it applies to speechwriters, and all writers. If you’re not feeling something when you write it, the fact that you intend for the audience to feel something during that part of the text is completely irrelevant. They don’t know your secret plan. There are no album liners, no footnotes telling people “hey, be sad here” or “this is where I hope you get truly pissed off.”

True emotion starts with you, as a writer or speaker. Because you can’t fake it, or cheat your way to this. I believe this is why a lot of writers, rock stars, and other artists tended to turn to alcohol and other things.

I tell people to overdo it at first. Go wild. Let go of your inhibitions, your extensive notes, the mound of quotes and facts you planned on including in the text. Put all of that away, as George Pica taught me, and tell me the story like you’re sharing it with a good friend. “You would not believe what the city council just did. What the hell?” Write it like that.

Include the passion, the short-hand, the slang, the things you felt and why.

That’s your first draft.

Then go back and clean it up. Insert the facts, quotes, details. Take out the slang and short-hand. Fix the structure to give it a beginning and end, because we’re taking the Inverted Pyramid out behind the barn and sending it home to heaven and the angels.

This is your second draft, which you’re going to have edited by somebody else. A pro. Not your husband, cousin, neighbor, or best friend from college. A professional.

Third draft should be the final, where you want to double-check all the usual things, as a habit, while looking at the emotional arc. It can’t be one-note, entirely happy or sad. That’s repetitive and ineffective. If it’s a story about a mom and her daughter getting hit by a drunk driver, you don’t start with that and end with details about the license plate of the suspected drunk. When you’re ending is down, the beginning should be up, and vice versa. You don’t pile horror on top of horror, or stack joy on more joy until you have a mountain of happiness. Doesn’t work that way. It’s why the Marvel movies use humor so consistently–they’re cleansing your palate. More thrilling action scenes would actually detract from the movie.

Whatever you’re writing, the goal should be the biggest possible difference, emotionally, from the beginning to the end. A hero sheriff becomes a villain, stealing money from the evidence locker while arrogantly believing whatever he did was right, because he was the one doing it, and the money was being taken from criminals, so who cares? Two estranged brothers, who refused to talk to each for fifty years, forgive each other during a five-shots-of-tequila night at the local biker’s bar.

Because there’s always a beginning and an end, though you wouldn’t know it from how most pieces are written, and the audience doesn’t want to be told how to feel, or beaten over the head with an explicit message. Give them subtext and details, then let the audience decide for themselves.

So I hope this helps even one writer struggling to figure out why a piece isn’t working. I hope it helps generate a few more stories which make people laugh and cry and see things differently.

And I hope you feel more than a little something the next time you brew a fresh pot of coffee and start banging on the keyboard. Let yourself feel a lot. It’s the only way your audience will feel anything at all.

Further reading:

The secret truth about writing

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

HEIST is a master class in tying character arcs to plot twists

As a public service, I’ve watched 99.9 percent of everything on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Whatever Blu-Rays are Inside that Shoebox I Found in Yonder Cupboard.

HEIST is what I saw last night, and (1) yes, it’s worth sending radiation at dried corn kernels for you to snack on while watching this thing, and (2) there are interesting storytelling techniques we’re going to talk smack about here on this website blog WordPress thing.

Because I care about you, this is the trailer:

So yes, you’ve got Negan (whoa!), Drax the Destroyer (double-whoa!!), and Robert-Freaking-DeNiro (you lie!!!) in the same movie? Plus Gina Carano? NO WAY.

Way.

Here’s the thing that I want to talk about: each of these characters has a distinct arc, one that not only works by itself, but is a vital part of the twists and reversals that serve as the V-8 engine of this story.

  • Negan is the hero with a deadline, an Army vet and card dealer who needs to find $400,000 by 7 p.m. on Friday for his daughter’s cancer treatment.
  • Drax the Destroyer is the casino security guard with the idea of robbing the place, and the one running the job.
  • Robert DeNiro is the cut-throat businessman who owns the casino and is (a) estranged from his daughter, his only family, and (b) dying of cancer.
  • Gina Carano is the cop chasing Negan and Drax in their getaway bus.

That’s right, a getaway bus. Remember SPEED, with Neo stuck on a bus that can’t go less than 55 or the bus and all its passengers go boom? This movie isn’t a straight ripoff. Being stuck on the bus, though, with the cops surrounding you, is a great premise. They run out of diesel once, and have to work around that. The cops shoot out a tire. There are just all sorts of great problems presented by being stuck on that bus.

But I want to talk about the intersection of the character arcs and story beats.

Negan improves the plans of Drax, who’s running the job, and he’s clearly smarter than the hothead Drax.

So it makes storytelling sense that instead of letting Drax kill a hostage–the bus driver–Negan shoots Drax instead.

Then it’s the bus driver who has the idea of how to get Negan off the bus while leading the bad detective (in the pay of Robert DeNiro) to chase the bus somewhere else.

To get the money off the bus, Negan uses a fake pregnant “hostage”–his sister–and makes sure she’s the first hostage released. Clever.

And when DeNiro spares Negan, shooting his hotheaded protege before he can kill the card dealer who stole his money, you believe it, because DeNiro has been questioning his path the whole movie, and this makes sense. He’s trying to do right by the world now.

Finally, you believe Gina’s police officer character looking the other way at the end, and letting Negan save his daughter, because it’s not a sudden change of heart. They’ve set this up with scene after scene where Negan and Gina both try to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost, while Drax tries to MURDER DEATH KILL everything in sight.

There isn’t a lot of Christopher Nolan cheating going on here, storywise. The setups are all there if you look for them, or remember. I just enjoy how the character and story beats mesh so well, and when the revelations all hit at the end, it makes you impressed with Negan’s cleverness and selflessness and happy about DeNiro’s final acts and Gina’s compassion.

All of this is nice contrast to most action movies, where evil and bloody things happen to just about any character at any time, except for the hero, because everyone but the hero is basically a bad guy who’s gonna die or a sidekick type who’s also gonna die. I mean, come on. White Bearded Mentor Who’s Kinda Like Obiwan Crossed with Mr. Miyagi? Dead by the end of Act 1. Hot girlfriend, sweet wife, or cute little daughter? Kidnapped by the end of Act 2. Sidekick who’s there mostly for tech support and comic relief? Impaled on a swordfish at the beginning of Act. 3. Femme Fatale with a thing for the hero? Fed to the sharks with lasers right before the rooftop battle with the Final Boss.

VERDICT

HEIST is clever and entertaining movie that reminds me a lot of SHIMMER LAKE (a perfect movie, go watch it, DO IT NOW) in that you’re cheering on a good man doing wrong things for the right reasons. It’s free on Netflix so fire it up.

 

The acid test for all writing

I believe, deep in my soul, that Zack Snyder-style gritty darkness isn’t bad simply because Zack Snyder directs it. Gritty Dark Dourness would be bad if the love child of Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock sat in the director’s chair.

And yes, it’s still fun to laugh at BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE.

But there’s something smart and deeper behind the idea that the Marvel movies got things right by being (a) funny and (b) exciting, while the DC / Snyderverse went wrong by taking itself far too seriously and going Full Melodrama, with a color palette full of grays and blacks contrasted by grays and more blacks. You never go Full Melodrama, because it makes your audience feel like the movie’s being written and directed by a bipolar Michael Bay who’s crying in a corner when he’s not blowing stuff up.

And all this made me think.

Because comedy isn’t actually light and fluffy. True comedy points out how absurd and unfair the world is, and how you can’t fix it and have to laugh at the insanity of it all.

My proposition is this: adding comedy to a book or movie doesn’t make it light and lame kiddie fare. Interweaving comedy into whatever–an action movie (every Marvel movie ever), a romance (ROMANCING THE STONE and every rom-com), a mystery (SHIMMER LAKE is perfect perfect perfect, go watch it now on Netflix, kthxbai)–can make it infinitely better.

We were talking yesterday about our favorite books of high lit-rah-sure, and my favorites were CATCH-22, Kurt Vonnegut and the ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL books, because I’ll happily go back and re-read any of these. What do they have in common? They’re universally beloved, recognized as classics, and funny as hell.

But making you laugh isn’t their only trick, like a SNL skit that repeats itself 459 times in four minutes. The best storytellers serve us different courses for our emotions over the length of a movie or book. They don’t dish up sad scene after sad scene, or pile up joke after joke. You get an appetizer, a main course, side dishes and dessert. Not five appetizers in a row or a plate full of six desserts.

ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL does this beautiful. The original book and its sequels are really short stories strung together. Each one, though, makes you feel a variety of emotions. Joy, sadness, laughter, love. You see the struggling young vet and the hard-scrabble farmers, and when an animal dies, or a sick cow makes it because a poor farmer stayed up all night tending to that animal, yeah, you might tear up.

That’s what makes us come back to those books and movies.

Not the plot points–we know what will happen. Not the writing.

We want to feel.

So that leads me to the acid test for me, as a writer. It’s how I know whether a draft is working or not.

Here’s the test: If I’m not tearing up, it’s not working.

Tears of joy, tears of laughter, tears of sadness–I better be feeling something as I write the ending. If I don’t, bring on the rewrite.

So yes, we can make fun of the dour, dark Snyderverse, and relentlessly depressing lit-rah-sure like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, where the scenery is beautiful and everybody’s rich and having affairs and in the end, everybody sells out to the Nazis and dies, the end, roll credits, and THROW SILVERWARE AT THE SCREEN BECAUSE THIS IS STUPID.

What do you want the audience to feel?

That’s the real question. And you have to feel it first.

Why “romance novels are trash” is such a bad take

A man on Twitter recently had the genius idea to mansplain to romance readers and authors all about their genre. He could separate the quality romances from the trash simply by looking at the cover. And yeah, he basically called most romances trash.

Somebody had to call 911, because that man was quickly murdered by words.

There’s no need to link to the Twitter thread, which is obscured by crime scene tape. Homicide detectives are still picking up bullet casings and bloody knives.

This man isn’t alone, though. Romance novels are the biggest sellers in the book industry, the foundation of the business, but they get a lot of grief, too.

Years ago, I was smart enough not to say such things on the interwebs, but I saw different genres of fiction as living on various planes of quality. Great Literature on top of the pyramid, then everything else.

Now, my thinking is completely turned around. Here’s why.

There’s no link between genre and quality

A lot of the classic of literature, now held up as the highest quality, were considered trash when they were first published.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote horror and died in poverty. You could call it literature, but it’s still horror.

Tons of what we hold up as of the highest quality are actually written for kids.

Dr. Seuss. Winnie the Pooh. Alice in Wonderland. Harry Potter.

There’s amazingly beautiful writing coming out of horror and sci-fi and romance–and totally unreadable nonsense on the shelves of Serious Fiction.

For every CATCH-22, there are 5.4 bazillion books like the just-released ANTKIND. Seriously, head to Slate and read the review.

What’s the purpose of a book or movie?

Stories have two basic missions: to entertain and educate.

To make you feel, and to show you worlds you didn’t know existed–or to look at the world in a different way.

There’s a misconception that Great Literature contains the highest meaning, that it’s the purest form with the strongest message. The opposite is true. I’ve read mountains of books, and I’m not alone in noticing that a lot of literature is dense and obscure. A slog. And because it’s too popular or Hollywood, the structure and endings of literary novels and movies are often backward, if not bizarre.

That muddles the message. Because even if somebody manages to slog through the entire thing, there’s a good chance they won’t understand the ambiguous and complicated point the author intends.

What’s worth living and dying for?

Think back to English Lit in college and the foundation. Literature, and all stories, are supposed to tell us what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

Romances focus on what’s worth living for–who should you love.

Thrillers are centered around what’s worth dying for.

I did a giant post all about this. Click here: Why every man must read a romance – and every woman a thriller

So those two “trash” genres split the great question in two. I’d say they do a beautiful job of tackling both halves of that question, too.

Every niche and genre has a question they’re trying to answer

Other fields of fiction derided as junk also tackle huge, deep topics.

Horror is really about dealing with fear and death.

Comedies each make fun of an institution: suburban family life, corporations, showbiz, war, politics.

Dramas show that no matter how bad things get, there will always be heroes trying to stand up for what’s right.

Sci-fi and fantasy ask, “What if?”

Each of these has a distinct message and way of looking at a piece of the world. And sure, there’s no law requiring you to love spy thrillers or watch superhero movies.

What I’m saying is (a) give them each a chance and (b) don’t disparage what other people enjoy.

Every genre of storytelling tries to a fundamental question about life.  They all have value–especially to the people who love them.

The writerly brilliance of SNL’s best skit EVER–Adam Driver’s oil baron

Skits are largely the same, mostly because of format. If you only have three to five minutes for a bit, it’s not going to be packed with revelations, reversals, and scads of character development.

This is why 99.96 percent of skits–on Saturday Night Live, Key and Peele, or anywhere else–are one-trick ponies.

Here’s a good example from another Adam Driver skit:

Not terrible, not great–pretty typical, right? You do something funny like “That’s what she said” from THE OFFICE, except instead of sprinkling it throughout a series, you pack it into a single skit.

So yeah, these can be hilarious, and they can be highly, highly repetitive.

Check out this one by Adam Driver, then we’ll talk about why it’s different for two key reasons.

Sure, there’s a central joke–“crush your enemies!”–but instead of endless repetition we actually get (1) the best acting in any SNL skit ever and most importantly, (2) beautiful writing that surprises you.

There’s so much good dialogue that it’s hard to pick the best ones.

My favorite is, “I was born seven months too early. Incubation technology was still in its infancy, so they placed me in a cast iron pot inside of a pizza oven until I was ripe enough to walk. My bones never hardened but my spirit did. Be strong and crush your enemies!”

Yet the best part about this is the storytelling and writing. Unlike your average skit, there’s some real interpersonal conflict underneath it with real depth and a payoff at the end after multiple setups–the fact the entire class thinks his son is weak; the introduction of H.R. Pickens, his nemesis that he crushed; and finally the revelation that his weak son, rather than being a disappointment, is a rousing success in his eyes.

It all pays off in a few short lines: “I killed you Mr. Pickens! I crushed you into the ground and now your bones turn to oil beneath my living feet! I married your granddaughter, filled her belly with my festering seed and sired a boy! He is my final revenge, H.R.!”

VERDICT

I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.

Seriously. Give us a full two-hour movie about Adam Driver’s oil baron, shot on a budget of “Yo, the director sold his Kia, so here’s the cash we got” and people would watch the hell out of it until there was no hell left.

What makes THE WITCH PART 1 so damn great

Because we are all watching Netflix and Hulu and digging through the garage to find that old VHS player because we cannot stomach rewatching IRON MAN 2 again, there are 7 billion people desperate for something new and glorious they hadn’t seen already.

So what makes something great compared to that thing you clicked off after ten minutes because it put you in a coma?

THE WITCH PART 1: SUBVERSION is a beautiful example of a great movie with a meh title. It’s a South Korean action movie that isn’t like other South Korean action movies, because (a) yes, damn near everyone dies at the end, which is required, but (b) the story here is quite different.

It’s the structure and storytelling that makes this movie special, not the acting or special effects. Watch the trailer, then let’s dive into it.

Subverting expectations is glorious

This movie starts fast and is a slow burn in the first third. Then the last half has some of the best twists, reversals, revelations, and fights scenes in forever.

Here’s the crucial difference: in most movies, the hero/heroine is always a step behind the villains. Only in the end do they learn what’s really happening, usually during the Villain’s Big Monologue When He Should Be Killing Errybody, and the climax features an overmatched protag somehow finding a way to beat the unstoppable genius villain.

THE WITCH reminds me of why I love SHIMMER LAKE, and it’s because they reverse this normal dynamic. The villains are a step behind the hero the whole time, though you don’t know that until the end, and the climax features an overmatched villain getting outsmarted and crushed. So yeah, it’s a romp at the end, but so, so, satisfying.

Just for kicks, here’s the trailer for SHIMMER LAKE, which you should watch, then watch again. It’s brilliant.

Honestly, I’ve watched dozens of movies in the last few months, and even the decent ones don’t really surprise you at the end. They hit the same old notes and use the same old formulas.

It takes talent and discipline to structure a movie like THE WITCH, or SHIMMER LAKE, to subvert all those tropes and expectations. When it happens, it’s glorious to see.

VERDICT

Fire up the Netflix and watch this thing.

Then watch SHIMMER LAKE to see who two movies with completely different genres have similar clever endings that are so satisfying.

 

Fire up Netflix and watch THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU

Listen, we’re all in quarantine so what are you gonna do, watch the same movies you’ve watched SEVEN BAZILLION TIMES?

No. You need some fresh content, new stuff. And the best stuff hiding on Netflix is definitely foreign films.

THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU is tight, fast, and twisty. All the things a good mystery/thriller should be.

And that’s why I want to talk about it. Because structurally, it’s interesting, and well done. This film also brings up nerdy storytelling debates, such as, “What the hell is a mystery/thriller, and how is it different than a mystery or Jack Reacher punching people in the face one more time?”

Mysteries, thrillers, and mystery/thrillers

Mysteries are easy to spot: there’s (1) a murder in the beginning, (2) a grizzled, alcoholic detective who investigates multiple suspects, starting with trip to the local nudie bar–this is apparently required by law, and (3) a series of sketchy suspects who are all plausibly the killer.

In the end, our detective sobers up enough to unmask the killer and either slaps on the handcuffs or poses a math problem.

Thrillers are also pretty easy to define.

A bad thing may happen. The central narrative question is, can it be stopped?

That question is the same whether the threat is a great white shark going nom-nom-nom, an alien on a starship with Sigourney Weaver in a T-shirt, or a terrorist who stole a nuclear weapon or three.

So what’s a mystery/thriller?

Good question.

Pinning down mystery/thrillers

You can’t really pin them down, not before doing single-leg takedown and going for an armbar.

Okay, you can pin them down.

A pure mystery has ONE murder and makes you wonder who did it, why they did it, and whether they’ll get away with it. Which they won’t, so really the surprise is who, why, and how the hero catches them.

Mysteries merge into Thrillville, population zero because everybody dies in Act 3, when they do two things: (1) boost the public stakes by putting more people at risk, or underground, and (2) identify the villain far earlier in the story, when it pivots to a thriller.

You gotta have those two ingredients. More people in danger, or turning up dead, and that earlier pivot.

THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU does this perfectly.

We find out who the villain is earlier than a pure mystery, and learn why they’re doing it. The stake are higher than a pure mystery because it’s not one murder, but a series of killings. A mystery is about getting justice for that one death. Thrillers are about stopping carnage.

What’s great is this movie doesn’t cheat. There are tons of mystery/thrillers where the villain’s motivation is paper-thin, or non-existent. And there are plenty of mystery/thrillers that aren’t suprrising or shocking. You see them coming, and that puts the B in Boring.

I truly enjoyed THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU, which does a great job of subverting the detective genre.

SPOILER: the villain wins, despite dying, and the hero wins, too, because the villain prods her into getting rough justice for the death that haunts her. (Fiance/husband/partner? Not sure — I watched this thing with the subtitles on).

It reminds me of SHIMMER LAKE, where the character you think is the hero is really the anti-hero/villain, doing the wrong things for the right reasons. And you understand why and agree with him, because he’s getting justice when the system failed.

If you haven’t watched it yet, finish up the Polish mystery/thriller goodness, then fire up SHIMMER LAKE, which is funny, shocking, and brilliant. It’s also a movie told in reverse, except it’s not a Cheaty McCheatface like MEMENTO.