Posts Tagged American Horror Story

High Stakes Game!

I watch the crappy movies that Syfy channel runs on Saturdays.  Oh, not every Saturday, but they’re a fantastic way to turn my brain off and get some writing done, because if I stop paying attention for half an hour, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.  It’s also where I get a certain amount of fodder for my Writer Reviews file.  Today’s not going to be an official Writer Reviews post, but I would like to look at one of the Syfy movies that ran, oh, about a month ago.  I wish I could remember the title, but they all end up blurring together and, with the exception of Asylum releases, tend not to have overly evocative titles to begin with.

The plot of the movie concerned an antimatter storm churning in the earth’s atmosphere, rapidly increasing in size and threatening a city in, let’s say, Texas.  Yes, this is about the long term impact these movies have on me.  Eventually the movie hit the point where stakes had to be introduced.  Typically in this type of movie the stakes are the very planet itself.  Standard stakes in a natural disaster movie.  In this case, however, the astrophysicist working with the military determined that the storm wouldn’t just stop when the earth was destroyed, but that it would accelerate and destroy the entire universe!

At this point, I lost any connection I may have had with the movie.  The idea that some mistake at some nuclear power plant somewhere on earth could destroy the entire universe just doesn’t sit with me.  Largely because the universe is so old and massive that if something so localized could destroy the whole of it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point.  Logic dictates that the universe simply can not be that fragile.  It’s a complete failure in setting the stakes for the movie, and left me feeling less tension, not more.

And that’s really the goal of stakes.  They define what can be lost through failure.  When properly deployed, they determine the audience’s emotional investment and attachment with the story, and the amount of tension in the story.  But this doesn’t mean that higher stakes will result in more investment and tension.  Stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.  I don’t buy a movie-of-the-week disaster story with end of the universe stakes.  I wouldn’t buy a period love story with even city-wide destruction stakes.  Gone With the Wind not withstanding.  The stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.

This is all a round about way to talk about American Horror Story.  I love this show.  Love this show.  It’s probably one of my two or three absolute favorite shows on television right now, right up with Hell on Wheels and just outpacing Fringe and Castle.  I’ve talked about all four on this blog in the past, but I’m revisiting American Horror Story because this week’s episode established the stakes for the rest of the season.

The pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  Part of why I love the show is getting to write sentence’s like that.

The stakes of the show have been very clear through the first seven episodes.  It’s about a family, and the question was always whether something was going to happen to make one of them snap and kill everyone else.  That’s the history of the house, it creates death.  That’s to be expected, the standard stakes in a haunted house story are the occupants of the house.  Their sanity, their lives, their relationships, all of them are on the line as the shit starts going down.  We’re even conditioned to expect the worst in this show, because even if they end up dead they might still come back next season.  Most stars of shows are safe because they’re the marquee names, but once ghosts are in play, all bets are off.

But now the pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  It’s such a sudden and jarring amplification of the stakes at play that it threw me out of the episode.  Oh, not the show.  Certainly not the show.  It’s still fantastically campy and wonderful and toeing every line that it can toe without being on HBO instead of FX.  Perhaps this is why the show disappointed me so much with the new stakes being set so late in the season, it’s an odd bait and switch.  That said, this is a show about being campy in every way possible short of buying a tent and a propane lantern, so I’ll be staying with it even as it dives off the deep end, because I suspect it’ll be a fun trip.  But that doesn’t make it appropriate in all circumstances.  Remember that horror and comedy are flip sides of the same coin, and exaggeration in either can work well if guided by the right writers.  I’m firmly of two minds about this, and thus will adopt a wait-and-see approach.  It does do, however, leave fewer directions to go with the already green lit second season.

That’s the problem with stakes in any kind of serial, whether a TV series, a series of movies, or a series of books.  It’s always easier to increase stakes than it is to decrease.  It’s not impossible to decrease stakes.  Please don’t say I ever said that.  It’s just harder to move in that direction, and takes a very deft hand.

Be aware of the stakes you’re setting in your story, ask yourself if you’re pushing them too far.  Ramp them back if need be.  There are fantastic stories out there that have very small stakes, largely because the smaller the stakes the more personally they’ll play on each character, so the richer each character can be.  If you’re feeling the need to increase the stakes, ask why, make sure that the stakes work in the scale of the story.  It’s certainly possible to create a story with universe saving stakes, but it needs to be universe scaled.

The fate of the world depends on it.

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Hey. Hey Apple. Apple. Hey.

A little secret: I stopped watching Once Upon a Time.  So I don’t know whether they’ve continued the Honey Crisp/Red Delicious screw up.  What I do know is I’m still getting Google hits every Monday morning for some variation of “once upon a time honeycrisp apple.”  What I also know is that apples have shown up on another genre television show, a show that’s been frustrating the hell out of me, even as I give it more chances than I think it really deserves.

Yup.  The apples have gone 85 million years back in time to appear on Terra Nova.

This time it had nothing to do with the variety of apples used, but rather an apple blight and a CGI beetle that loves eating apple blight.  It was tangential to the primary plot of the show, but worked something like this.  Step one: blighted trees, ruined crop.  Step two: release beetles.  Step three: beautiful trees, bounteous crop.  All in the course of less than a week.

Blight really doesn’t work that way.  It destroy entire yields of crops, it kills trees.  No amount of magic CGI beetle is going to surgically remove just the infected bits of an apple and leave beautiful fruit behind for everyone to enjoy and bake into pies to feed to young children who never got to have an apple pie back home because the future was just that miserable!  Deep breath.  This seems like such a little nit to pick, but it leads up to my new rule for genre television:

Judge shows by their use of apples.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Once Upon a Time: Couldn’t be bothered to properly source the right kinds of apples for scenes.  Terra Nova: misunderstands just how devastating a blight is to a crop and paints it as a reversible thing.  American Horror Story: when Zachery Quinto is raging out about gala apples, by god, they’re gala effing apples.

And which of those three shows is the strongest?  Easily American Horror Story.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for apples in other genre shows, just to see if the pattern holds up.  And it does make sense as a pattern, because this really has nothing to do with apples and everything to do with just paying attention to the little details.  Because those are often just as important as the big ones.

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A Writer Reviews: Them Apples

I love Honeycrisp apples.  And really, who wouldn’t?  They were scientifically created by the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to be the perfect apple for eating raw.  They’re crisp, they’re sweet, they’re juicy, they really are the best thing that you can grab out of the grocery store produce aisle and just sink your teeth right into.  Except they’ll probably want you to pay for the apple first.

But this is A Writer Reviews, not Eat This.  So why am I talking about Honeycrisp apples?  Well, first I want you to see a picture of a Honeycrisp.

Honeycrisp photo released under the Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 license by wikipedia user Jonathunder.

Aw man, that looks good, doesn’t it?  They get that great two-toned skin similar to a gala apple that makes them visually distinct.  I show you that picture to show you another picture.  These are the kinds of apples that Once Upon a Time has been using for the Evil Queen.

Red Delicious photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 by wikipedia user Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

That’s a Red Delicious apple, the apple that put Washington State on the map as an apple producer, and that still makes up most of the crop in the state.  Not as good for eating raw, great for cooking.  It has an iconic look to it, somewhat tall with very distinct bumps on the bottom, and a uniform red coloration throughout.  Every apple we’ve seen thus far on Once Upon a Time has clearly been a red delicious.  However, this week’s episode made a point of calling them Honeycrisps.  Several times.  It expounded on the ability of the Honeycrisp to grow in harsher northern climates.  Which is true, it’s what they were partially bred for.  A character talks about tending a Honeycrisp tree since she was a child.  Which is unlikely for the age of the actress, since they were only recently released, but since she’s also the Evil Queen I can forgive her a lie on this matter.  But to go out of the way to pick one very specific type of apple and then show another?  I can’t understand that.

If the store the prop department goes to doesn’t have Honeycrisp apples, they you go to the farmer’s market or the off ramp in Valencia and you buy a bag from Pedro.  Where’s the effort?

Sorry, that’s not me getting into random racial profiling, but rather it’s from another show that featured very specific species of apples this week, American Horror Story.  In a great scene, Zachery Quinto, playing a ghostly house stager (fantastic sentence to type) wants Granny Smith apples for a bobbing station, but series star Dylan McDermott bought Galas.  And, by god, those are Gala apples floating in the basin.

In the case of a television show, this is a prop department issue.  The prop department for American Horror Story is clearly a little more up on its apple varieties than the prop department of Once Upon a Time.  Or cares a little more.  Or realizes if a character is going to get mad about a variety of apples, it better as hell be that variety of apples.  If you think I’m being harsh and pedantic on Once Upon a Time (“I think you’re over-reacting.”  “Because I’m the only one who actually gives a shit?”), well, I am.  But I’m also not the only person who noticed that they clearly were not using the new darling of the apple world, and instead using mealy cooking apples.  But it’s still a prop department issue, not a writing room issue, so why am I even bringing it up?

As writers on the page, rather than writers for the screen, we are our own prop departments.  And we are writing for an audience that is going to include harsh and pedantic people, because that’s who people are.  So we have to do what we can to ensure that the props we put in stories are accurate, especially if we’re being precise about their nature.  If there’s a bowl of gala apples on a table and a character examines their green skin, that’s a prop error.  If Dirty Harry is running around shooting his .44 Magnum, he better fire either five shots or six, because if there’s a seventh, that’s a prop error.  Anytime a real world object is mentioned by name, it better work and look the right way or include an explanation of why it doesn’t.

People will notice these things.  People will call bullshit.  And it will pull people out of the stories.

What’s the solution?  There are two.  Less specificity and more research.  The former works where specificity isn’t essential to the plot, but be careful not to turn it into a cheat.  Sure we’re not going to know the make and model of every gun being shot at our hero as she escapes the death trap set up to finally kill her, especially if we’re in third person limited or first person perspective.  But we’ll probably know what her gun is, even if it’s a fictional one, just so that the rules of the weapon can be internally consistent.  So when specificity is called for, it’s time to do enough research to make sure the details are right.

So get your apples right.  And while you’re at it, go out and try a Honeycrisp if you haven’t.  Me?  I’ve actually got a bottle of Honeycrisp hard cider at home I’ve been meaning to break open.

Honeycrisp photo released under the Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 license by wikipedia user Jonathunder.
Red Delicious photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 by wikipedia user Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

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