You’ve seen this a zillion times: hot young chick alone in spooky house. Odd noises coming from basement. Hot young chick, armed only with a single flickering candle opens basement door, peers into shadows and then proceeds to do the one thing in the world we all know she would never do: walks down the stairs.
Why does she do it? Answer: the writer or director needs her to do it to get to whatever gruesome event he has cooked up for her in that basement. So he just makes her do it.
Meanwhile, those in the audience who know better are shaking their heads in disgust, and even the ones who aren’t consciously aware of this rank act of directorial manipulation react to it similarly at least on an instinctive level. Because the hot young chick has been forced to violate the internal logic of her character she seems less real and therefore we care less about what happens to her in that basement. That element of dread which the director is trying to build in us either does not come or comes in a very diluted form because we have lost the essential element of belief.
Belief in what? Belief in the humanity of the characters. Nobody cares if a maniac chops up a mannequin – mannequins aren’t real. People care about other people, but for a story to work we have to think of those people as something more than just a construct being moved through the plot like a checkers piece. If we are to care about whatever peril they are put in we have to care if they live or die – a particularly difficult task considering the fact that we come to the story knowing it’s all made up. The writer or director has to get us past that, which means giving us characters who act like real people.
This is a particularly difficult task for horror writers because the genre requires certain conventions, which – when done poorly – turn into a tired rehash of hokey formulae:
1. Normal person(s) living normal life encounters terrifying situation.
2. Normal person(s) copes with with terrifying situation.
3. Normal person triumphs over or succumbs to terrifying situation.
Certainly, real people make stupid decisions in reaction to events in their life all the time and writers can create characters who do a little of that here and there. But real life is random and stories aren’t. If a writer wants to get his story over the “Belief Hump” (especially if it’s a fantastic story) he’s going to have to create characters that react consistently at least most of the time. He’s going to have to make us care. It’s all great fun to craft a fight scene in which a pretty little one-hundred-and-eight-pound girl throws a bunch of two-hundred-and-twenty-pound stunt men all about the set, but for the audience to buy that you have to explain why she’s able to do it.
Star Trek viewers always knew that any guy in a red shirt that goes down to the planet surface with Kirk was a goner. Likewise, any woman who marries Hoss in “Bonanza” wasn’t going to make it past the third act. If the viewers knew it, why didn’t the writers and directors know it too? After all, they wrote the stuff – they should know better, right?
So how do we avoid this trap? The best answer is to focus a little less on the events of the story and more on the characters. Shade the events in terms of the people you have experiencing them: ask yourself “How would this person normally react, here?” If the normal reaction is not what you would want (she’d stick forks in her eyes before going anywhere near that basement), reframe the situation (she hears what appears to be an infant crying down in the dark) in a way that will get your character where you want him.
The writer’s job is to not get swept away by the pressure of the events in his story; the writer must navigate himself, his characters and his audience through it in a controlled fashion so that everybody’s happy at the end. Only then will the trip have been worth the seven bucks.