Archives for October 2017

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Horror or Humor? A Writing Prompt

Tis the season to be scary, so why are so many “horror” movies funny instead? What is the boundary? What makes a story horror or humor? Explore the answer with this hilariously scary writing prompt.

Are You Writing Horror or Humor?

Interestingly, what determines whether a story is funny or scary is less the topic and more how the topic is treated. As an example, let’s discuss a comedic Halloween classic: Hocus Pocus.

Main Concept: 3 witches who suck out the souls of children to stay young

Is it just me, or is that a pretty creepy (see terrifying) idea? So how can it be a funny movie?

The answer is “the emphasis.” More of the movie is spent on the goofiness of witches, their confusion about modern stuff, re-inflatable cats, and rolling heads, and the last two are practically Looney Tune-like with their abilities to be mangled but unharmed.

In other words, although the scary idea provides impetus for the plot, it is overshadowed with hilarious hijinks.

To prove the idea works, here’s a writing prompt to take the same idea and make 2 totally different stories. Here’s what the two parts will have in common:

  • a frightening condition or situation (serial killer, hungry witches, etc.)
  • the basic characters (3 witches, 2 vampires, and a human teenager)
  • the beginning mood (for about the first scene or the exposition)

The rest… well, the rest is going to vary a bit.

Writing Horror

This time, we’ll make it creepy and try to give our readers nightmares (*wicked cackle as lightning flashes*). That means we need to emphasize the darkness of the situation.

Here are some pointers for keeping it headed in a scary direction:

  1. The consequences are experienced repeatedly (people die, are maimed, etc.).
  2. Focus on the losses and the main character’s plans to avoid experiencing it.
  3. Frightened reactions need to be serious and realistic (no flailing in a panic in a way that lightens the mood – if someone flails in a panic [because people do], it had better emphasize the overpowering helplessness caused by the fear rather than how ridiculous the person looks).
  4. No stupid, clichéd actions (we’re not trying to emphasize character stupidity).
  5. Ends badly or at least not completely happily (a chirpy, perky ending shouldn’t really be possible if you took step 1 seriously).

To summarize, the emphasis is on negative aspects and realism.

Writing Humor

With that same situation and even the same starting mood, you can make the story funny instead of scary. All it takes is a different focus:

  1. Having few consequences or glossing over them (So-in-so isn’t really dead – it was just a sleep spell! Someone died? Sorry, I was too busy laughing at these crazy antics to remember that.).
  2. The villain(s) is goofy in some way – clumsy, has a stamp collection that he waxes poetic about at the slightest opportunity, can only kill someone who’s facing him and ends up chasing people in circles like a dog chasing his tail (you get the idea)…
  3. Characters do stupid stuff and survive (how, we’re not sure).
  4. Survival is as much by unfeasible circumstance as by intelligence/bravery (“Thank God that tree fell when it did!” or “If you hadn’t driven into a garlic store, we’d be goners!”).
  5. Ends happily (all the main characters survive and any previous deaths are already forgotten or somehow ok – “He was a killer, too,” or “Their spirits are free and happy now”).

That’s a formula that has turned a number of terrifying circumstances into a funny movie. Just don’t use it when you actually want something to be scary. It won’t end well.

Ok, actually, it will (that’s one of the rules), but it won’t be scary!

All right. Ready to write 2 totally different versions of the same story? These ones would be especially good to share! 😀

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Up With Which I Will Not Put: Not a Winston Churchill Quote

Nope. “This is just the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put,” is not a Winston Churchill quote according to quote investigator. We have been mislead yet again by the internet (well, it actually started with newspapers and such).

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of why I’m not a big fan of trying to make English conform to Latin rules (AKA avoid ending with a preposition). It really shows how horribly awkward sentences can get when you try to use a common phrase (“put up with”) without ending with a preposition.

Sooo awkard…

What I like best about this quote, however, is how it shows the humor long associated with this debate. And, really, read the quote investigator article for quite a few variations on the story, its set up, and how newspaper men apparently didn’t get it (because they ruined the punchline).

All that aside, it might also remind you of some traditional blonde jokes and various other forms of a tongue-in-cheek protest of this Latin rule.

The older form (including the “up with which I will not put” story) goes like this:
  1. A job or work context is given, and within that, someone (usually in management) sends out a message that ends with a preposition.
  2. A reply to that statement mocks its lack of grammatical correctness.
  3. The original speaker replies to the insult with a sentence that deliberately avoids using the preposition at the end and results in an overly elaborate and, therefore, humorous response (Oh, the irony!).

This is the format of the Winston Churchill story (which is apparently false), several versions set in the military, and more.

The new form varies in the aggressiveness of the response:
  1. A person asks a stranger a question that ends in a preposition (usually something along the lines of “Where are you from?”).
  2. Instead of answering the question directly, the stranger scornfully scoffs at the use of a preposition at the end of the sentence.
  3. The original person re-asks the question and uses direct address with an insult (usually a curse word) to keep the preposition from being at the end of the sentence (“Where are you from, b*%$?”).

Did you realize what that means?

There are actually traditional forms of jokes about this preposition rule. Multiple ones!

Now, that’s funny.

Of course, so is “up with which I will not put.” Even if Winston Churchill didn’t say it.

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Learning Direct and Indirect Objects from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

If you haven’t read, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, I highly recommend it – it’s a great children’s book. It’s also a useful tool to begin learning direct and indirect objects.

How to Use Direct Objects and Indirect Objects

First, I’d like to break down an action into two parts: cause and effect. The cause would be the subject (the one doing or starting the action), and the effect would be the object (the one that feels the result of the action).

Direct Object

A direct object is the thing or person that the verb controls. Depending on the verb, the direct object could be moved, struck, passed, lifted, etc. The action is happening to that object (but it will NEVER be directly after the word “to”!).

“If you give a mouse a cookie…”

You (subject) are giving (verb) the mouse a cookie. The cookie is being given, so “cookie” is the direct object.

Indirect Object

The indirect object is the thing or person that receives the direct object.

“If you give a mouse a cookie…”

You’re giving the cookie (direct object) to the mouse, so “mouse” is the indirect object.

Notice that you can reword the indirect object by moving it after the direct object and putting “to” in front of it. For example, “If you give a cookie to a mouse…”

Since this works without changing the meaning, we know that we have identified the correct indirect object*.

Why This Book?

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is the type of book that follows a pattern. That means that the sentences on each page are fairly similar. Most of the pages involve statements where very little changes except the direct object. That makes identifying the direct object simpler when starting out, so it’s a good way to start learning to recognize them in sentences.

Make sense?

*Once “to” is in front of “a mouse,” “mouse” becomes the object of the preposition and is no longer an indirect object (technically).

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Writing Fall: It’s More Than a Season

When building a world, we need to sprinkle in aspects of our world as well as new creations from reimagining our world. That includes seasons, and since Fall has finally arrived, it’s the perfect time to discuss why writing fall isn’t only leaves and cold breezes – it’s more than a season.

Worldbuilding Fall

What do I mean by “it’s more than a season”? Well, let’s just say that it’s not enough to throw some weather changes into your story. Maybe that works on rare occasions, but, come on, you and I both know that there’s more to fall than that (or any other season for that matter).

But, hey, we’ll start with the obvious bits.

Fall Weather and Climate Changes

That’s what everyone thinks of isn’t it? The physical aspects that affect our senses:

  • Cool, dry air on sunny days
  • Rain and thunderstorms (even tornadoes and hurricanes)
  • Golds, reds, oranges, and browns across the treetops and the ground
  • Yellow grasses and crops
  • Migrating birds

On the other hand, does everyone really think of that?

What about people in southern California? Or Arizona? Or areas even further south? Fall doesn’t mean the same things to them as far as temperature and changing colors.

There are, however, some aspects of Fall that people surrounded by cool breezes have in common with their friends in warmer climates – at least ones  that share parts of their culture.

Fall Products & Culture

Big marketing firms have made sure that people across the U.S.A. all associate Fall with specific colors, scents, holidays, and flavors. These should not be a surprise to anyone in the U.S.

  • Reds, oranges, browns, and golds (That sounds familiar…)
  • Bronze
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom (Spices associated with pumpkin pies, apple pies, cider, mulling spices, and more)
  • Jack-o-lanterns
  • Turkeys
  • Scarecrows
  • Corn husks
  • Decorative Squashes (Did you know you can eat most of those?)
  • Pumpkin Spice

Sound familiar? It should. Srsly, the pumpkin spice trend alone has become so big that it’s become a running gag.

And, yes, even with the pumpkin spice thrown in, I can’t blame it entirely on marketing. Many of those ideas and symbols go back to traditions that have been associated with Fall ever since our culture was mainly agricultural, and it was harvest time.

And that’s actually my point.

The season change has other aspects that affect the culture besides strict weather changes: the growing season, decorations, activities, etc. Yes, they’re related to those weather changes, but that doesn’t mean that the weather is all you need to add to create the feel of the season.

It takes more than that.