Sunday, May 25, 2008

Scooby Don'ts

Remember Scooby, Shaggy and the gang, solving mysteries every week? Well, it seems there are a few writers out there who never forgot our dear friends and their psychedelic Mystery Machine.

Charles Gramlich did an interesting post recently on reading bad fiction. It got me thinking about the relative value of learning from good fiction (inspirational!) to learning from bad (a, well, different kind of inspiration, I guess), when I realized that everything I might learn from reading crap fiction, I learned watching Scooby Doo!

1. Graceful Exposition: Now, we all need to lay a little pipe here and there, to set the stakes (or reiterate them), to fill the reader in on PERTINENT background, or to set the scene. To see how to do this gracefully, read Cold in the Light: Charles reveals detail gradually, as needed. He does this naturally, in conversations. When deep background is needed, he brings in a character whose LIFE DEPENDS on being filled in. The stakes raise, and we learn more.

By contrast, how often did Velma start the show with things like, "Gee, it sure is dark out here in the forest at night." or "Jinkies, Shaggy, I'm sure there's nothing to these rumours about a haunted mineshaft."
Then again, they were all so stoned, they thought the dog could talk...


2. Mystery: A good mystery has more than one suspect. I believe I was four by the time I figured out that it was ALWAYS the creepy old man.


3. Suspence: Not every story has to be a whodunnit. Or in Scooby's case, a What-dunnit (psst! before you call an exorcist, check out the creepy old man...), but an element of suspence is, shall we say, desirable. Highly desirable. Even in a romantic comedy.
Actually, Scooby and the gang weren't too bad at this. I mean, yeah, I was a kid, but those ghosts flying down the mineshaft/across the graveyard/over the fog-shrouded docks, with their blazing eyes and unearthly howls... Yeah.


Except...


4. Rational Action: You're dealing with a Terror From Beyond the Grave, or else some delusional and possibly violent madman (after all, he's already hoping to scare you death- the hatchet might be next!), what's a rational course of action? Some sort of trap involving electric fans, 10,000 rubber bands and a lot of feathers, of course!


Now, Scooby Doo was farce, and in farce your characters can be assinine. Look at all those Comedia del'Arte plays where the young man doesn't recognize his own sister because she has a *teeeensy* little mask on, or that his page these many years is actually a REALLY HOT CHICK with her hair up under a hat. Like I said, farce, that sort of thing is allowable (within its own set of rules, of course), but ANYWHERE ELSE, your heroes (and villains, please God the villains) Must. Act. Rationally.

And last...


A Powerful Climax: Remember being little? Remember when those howling Terrors From Beyond the Grave were so scary in the first twenty minutes of the show? I was left alone once watching Scooby Doo, just a little feller. My folks weren't gone more than ten minutes (trip to the donut shop, back in the days before children lived their entire childhoods on permanent lockdown), but by the time they got back I was shaking in terror. What if the ghost was here? In the apartment? Was that a noise?




No need to worry about me wandering off, or fucking with the stove. I was too rigid with fear to move!


That's what a strong First Act can do. Now, remember how you felt when that Dread Spectre turned out to be a seventy-two year old man in a bedsheet? On roller skates? When his unearthly howl came from tissue on a comb?

My sense of betrayal knew no bounds.

That is what a crappy climax can do. Even as a child, I hated the sell-out wusses at Hanna Barbara. yeah, I know now that they were bowing to pressure from the network, who were bowing to pressure from the advertisers, who were running in terror of every purse-mouthed, sexually-repressed, bitter old lady whose one great pleasure in life was finding Satan on a jar of peanut butter.

But, dammit, they messed up the STORY. They took away the end. And for the audience, the audience who've stayed with you from page one, messing up the end is the worst, the absolute WORST thing you can do.

(Oh, one more thing. These points, all are actual reasons I've dropped books in the last few weeks. Some of them, I dropped with extreme prejudice...)

12 comments:

cs harris said...

Good points, all!

I was horrified when, as an adult, I started reading Nancy Drew books to my girls. I remembered them as being so clever, so grown up. Instead, they were clunky and laughably predictable. Yet I see those same shortcuts being taken in adult fiction--TDC being of the most successful example.

Bernita said...

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
I'm getting near the end and I'm worried about the climax.

SQT said...

Great post.

There are a lot of disappointing books out there. I read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi and the paranormal craze is churning out lots of crap. I'm very lucky that the publishers send me books to review, so I don't have to buy them all. But after awhile it feels like I'm reading the same book over and over.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks for the nods. Much appreciated. I remember watching Scooby Do too and always wishing one time that it would turn out to be a real monster instead of the creepy old man. Maybe they should do a remake as a slasher flick and the members of the group die one by one in gruesome ways.

I did like the theme song, though.

Lana Gramlich said...

Loved this post, even though I don't write. One thing I did notice in Scooby Doo, was that the 1st person they met in an episode was the guilty party 99.99999% of the time.

Lisa said...

These are great points. I think "All I Ever Needed to Know About Good Storytelling I Learned from Scooby-Do" has promise as a series!

I'm always trying to cull from posts like these what I can translate into my own work and the answer is -- nearly all of it. Some of these elements are much more germane to particular categories of fiction, but the one that jumps off of the page for me when it comes to contemporary fiction, where plot is much more subtle is Rational Action. In books where character development is usually the most critical component, the thing and when I'm disappointed in a book, typically it's because I feel that the character did something I wouldn't consider rational (based on who the author has led me to believe the character is). Very interesting...

Shauna Roberts said...

And yet we kept watching Scooby Do week after week.

Sidney said...

That's a good evaluation, though if I'm tired and a little bored I still return to the Scooby gang for relaxation and once in a while the Cartoon Network shows one of the movie-length ones.

Steve Malley said...

CS, I seem to remember Nancy, Frank and Joe were all awfully fond of adverbs, too. (He said, reminicingly...)

Bernita, fear not! You got ghosts, how can you go wrong?!

As long as they don't turn out to be an old man on rollerskates, of course...

SQT, what gets me is that, every one of those books, enough people really believed in it to shepard the work all the way to publication!

Charles, the nods were well deserved. You're a fine writer.

And I always had this idea where we'd join Scoob and the gang ten or fifteen years later. A lot of those creepy old men would have died in prison, but at least one had been sitting inside, nurturing his hate...

Lana, Y'ever notice how rarely there were *any* other characters? Crazy...

Lisa, whether Mrs. Dalloway throws a party or Odd Thomas has to stop Satanists from massacring a shopping mall, hero and villain alike need to act rationally. Or understandably irrationally. You know.

Shauna, kids are optimists. At least I was. Every week, every single week, I hoped *this* time the ghost was real...

Sidney, I like 'em too. For me these days, it's about that gorgeous dark palette! I swear, the color saved that cartoon. Don't believe me, try watching old Superfriends...

Avery DeBow said...

Excellent points , Steve. I, too, have run through a glut of unsatisfying endings as of late. The worst was a book that promised--and delivered, up until the last ten pages--a truly bizarre experience. But, the author had apparently written himself in a corner and couldn't get out, because the resolution was one of those, "It was all a social experiment; you set it up yourself and then erased your own memory," type deals. Very, very disappointing. I'm still bitter about it.

Sqt -- Right on.

Steve Malley said...

Avery, that bastard!

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