There’s a killer on the loose. He killed five people already. He cuts them to pieces and eats them- yuck. You get home, and the door’s been forced. There’s blood on the floor. Your heart yammers. He’s there, you know it. You round the hallway for the bedroom, and he leaps out, wielding a hatchet, wearing somebody else’s face.
You kick him in the crotch. He goes down. You call the police. Hurrah!
Unless that was a spoof movie, you’ve lost the audience forever. It could be a movie or a book, but if you write this, it’s all over. The serial killer is taken down by one kick. You’d never trust any suspense that was built again. You wouldn’t believe any threat that was being foreshadowed. The writer broke the rules of causality, and the threat has fizzled out of the story.
As writers, we don’t want to do this. It’s hard enough to build threat, tension, suspense. The last thing we want is to pop the balloon and let the air out, leaving only the noxious stink of ‘that would never happen‘ in our wake.
So how do I build threat?
I’m working on this now, in the Dawn Cycle. It’s essential to any kind of story whatsoever. Every story, unless it’s a pastoral postcard of a scene with no people in it, or a visceral ride with no more than surface reactions to cool or shocking imagery, has threat. Threat could also be called conflict- they’re essentially the same thing, though threat comes first. Without threat, conflict is meaningless.
Is it rewarding to watch somebody kick a lot of ass on screen but have no idea why? Well, perhaps it is- if it’s clip scenes of Neo in Matrix 1, of Old Boy in Old Boy with the hammer, or such-like. But that’s not story, that’s visceral, that’s Best of YouTube. You wouldn’t watch that for an hour and a half- though we did all watch Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for 120 minutes. But can anybody remember any element of story or character from that movie?
That’s my point.
Story is the end-game, and end-goal. Visceral scenes might make us go all wobbly for a bit, but they won’t engage emotions other than an immediate reaction, certainly if there’s no threat.
Threat is simple.
It’s super-simple. We’ve all felt threatened in real life; a bully when we were kids, the smart-alec at work who gets one-up on us with zinger one-liners, the boss who seems to have it in for us. Rendering that into a story can be tricky though. What are the steps?
1- We must must must care about the characters.
To me, this is cardinal. Without this we have nothing but a lot of sound and motion. And it’s not really that hard. Again, think of real life. There’s people we like and people we don’t. We like funny people. We don’t like funny people who are too cruel. We like nice people. We don’t like people who are needy-nice. We like strong characters. We don’t like domineering characters.
In story-parlance, the bit of your story where you first build attraction to your character is called The Ordinary World. We see them in their natural habitat, usually in control. They’re interesting enough, or funny enough, or strong enough for us to like them. If they have oddities going on, perhaps some negative side, it’s counter-balanced by a sympathetic excuse.
Dexter kills people. In the show’s five seasons (to date) he’s killed one innocent man by accident, and one guy for just looking at his kids in a suspect way. But hey, Dexter saw his mom killed right before him when he was a baby. He’s still reacting to that drama.
So we sympathize with him. We want him to kill the bad guys. We don’t think of him as a bad guy, though he’s the serial killer.
If we don’t care about people, we can’t feel threat for them. We might not want to see a big display of blood or guts (uh, Saw) but that’s visceral disgust. That comes from torture porn movies, and they are not story-based.
2- After caring comes the threat.
This is very easy. We build a character we the audience/reader likes, then put them in jeopardy. In romantic comedies it’s the jeopardy to lose a potential mate. In action or horror movies it’s fear that the protagonist won’t make it out alive.
Building the threat means exposing our protagonist to someone who is bad. We know bad people; they do bad things. They murder, rape, torture, abuse, betray, lie, bully, and steal. Look at the Stieg Larrson books- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- to see an excellent cast of evil guys. They hate women, they are stronger than women, and our protagonist is a woman. Done, threat all the time.
We spiral this threat up with increasingly close encounters between out lead characters. Harry Potter doesn’t really face Voldemort himself until book 4. He’s almost entirely absent from book 5 and 6; though his presence is felt in the background, through his minions, through the things he does to other people. That’s an excellent technique for building dread and anticipation. Look at Atlas Shrugged- could we be any more desperate to meet John Galt by the end of the book, after hearing his name mentioned by every character of consequence all throughout.
We spiral up the threat, and at the climax of the book, we-
This is simplest of all. The two leads meet and duke it out. Both push themselves to the limit, all-in, leverage all the awesome power they have and throw it at each other. Only one can win. They may have to make huge sacrifices to do that, they may lose part of themselves, they’ll doubtless be irrevocably changed, but we need that. There has to be a cost. If there is no cost, then in the aftermath we’ll be thinking- ‘wait, why did we ever feel threat from that? He couldn’t even…‘
Clash, sacrifice, cost, bittersweet victory, all-change. That’s the recipe for the end.
How not to threat
So how do stories mess that up? Well, look at the opening example. This guy is a killer, he’s killed five people, he eats them, yuck, and so on. But our hero kicks him in the nuts and he goes down. No harm no foul no problem. Game over. We win.
Totally unsatisfying. There was no cost. There was hardly even a clash. Nobody had to step up their game, nobody had to reach deep down. We look now at the serial killer and think he must have been a real clown. IT’s those criminals we see on candid camera making stupid mistakes like pulling their mask into place after entering the store. They’re criminally comical. They’re a laughing stock.
When I see this happen in TV shows or books I had high hopes for, I’m always disappointed.
There were a lot of things I didn’t like about this show, from the off. I hated the smarmy introductory voice-overs. I hated that there was no central triggering event, but instead just a series of ongoing powers-finding people. I hated the absolute lack of focus, bouncing all round the world as if that was somehow going to help. But what I hated most was the defanging of Sylar, and the failure to follow through on the extreme threat of ‘save the cheerleader, save the world’.
In episode 2, when we first saw Sylar’s victims, I got excited. I was ready to feel some serious threat, to worry about this clearly rogue Hero, about what he might do and why. They set up the nuclear blast over Manhattan beautifully, built up threat in Claire’s back story.
Then they squandered it all. Sylar failed to kill Claire at Homecoming, but nobody was harmed. Nothing happened at all. Episodes later we saw Sylar’s back-story, which removed any kind of threat from him. He was just some idiot who killed his mother by accident. His search for greater powers seemed to rise more from the fact that he just could, than from any deep-seated evil.
He was castrated. After that point, despite the series trying to revamp him several times as a villain, I never felt any threat from him. He was pathetic in himself, he could never defeat Peter, who was a total pansy btw, and that was proved in the first season finale when he was beaten by a few punches from a few of the Heroes. They showed us his bloody crawl marks as some kind of cliff-hanger, but for me the serial killer had long ago been kicked in the nuts and downed. There was no credible threat left. Syler was a yoyo bouncing up and down, but nobody got hurt.
After that, Heroes struggled to find anything to fear, and failed completely. The guy in Japan- what? What did it matter? He was actually a good guy. I stopped watching after that. I think anyone that continued watching did so only for visceral pleasures- special heroes powers effects, attractive actresses, etc.. Because there was no other bad guy than Sylar.
This show had some threat too, but really not very much. So in 6 months time most peoples lives would be continuing as normal. Excuse me, what? Am I supposed to invest in that? Where’s the threat? Oh, a few of these basically unlikeable lead characters ‘might’ die before then? Well who cares, kill them now, they’re all whiney alcoholics anyway.
After they showed us the view from the scientist’s side, Charlie and his buddy, the guys who had caused the event, it was immediately obvious there was no threat. They were just some dumb-ass scientists. If there was any more threat to it than that, it seriously didn’t come across.
This one is going much the same way as Flashforward. Don’t get me wrong, the first two episodes were gripping. Great visceral effects, but also a real sense of threat. Sure the characters were annoying, but the threat and effects were enough to overcome that.
Then a few episodes in we see the villain fail, spectacularly. He tries to blackmail the President and loses, in a totally obvious way.
After that point, what is left to fear? He lost. We see him standing alone in lonely buildings. He’s not scary in the slightest. He might even kill some people, but after this point, he’s a wuss.
Why did they show us that? I don’t get it. It’s crazy. Build threat, keep your villain in the shadows, keep his mystery, and make him always powerful, always a killer. Because you need the good guy to be doing something, then sure, kill off the villain’s minor henchmen. But don’t show us the villain defeated himself!
Compounded by the fact that he had the warp-field technology to transport a whole plane out of the sky, to sink an entire building, but couldn’t pull his people out of Inostranka. That illogic makes the villain a pastiche, unreal, and nothing to feel threatened by.
So that was how not to threat. How do we then do it?
Lost got it right. They sustained our fear, intrigue and general sense of threat from the black smoke for 6 years. They sustained Ben for 3 or 4. They did it be never showing us the next layer of bad guys until it was time for the ultimate clash. We didn’t get to know the Black Smoke’s back-story until the second before the climax.
And that was the key. They always had the Black Smoke. Everything else until that point was a henchman. But even the henchman kicked more butt than the major villains in the other shows I just listed. The Others were killing Lostaways left right and center. They didn’t care, and they were damn hard to kill.
Ben played everyone for all of season 2. He came out on top. He didn’t get squashed until, well, ever. He ends up as a bossman himself, after a deep change of heart.
That sustained level of threat did become annoying. It’s true, we wanted answers. But because that threat remained, we watched the show avidly for 6 years, dying to know what the Smoke was. There were lots of clashes along the way, but they had their ultimate clash planned for the very end.
None of the shows above can say that. They threw away their climaxes in the first few episodes. They kicked the serial killer in the nuts, then tried to stand him back up, croaking and barely able to breathe, and asked us to fear him again.
That’s how not to threat.
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