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.
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.
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...)