Monday, February 8, 2016

How Long Would You Wait?

A friend recently asked me how long I'd wait in a horror movie for it to get scary before I'd give up on it. I didn't have a set amount of time before I'd walk out, though I believe he said he'd walk after twenty minutes, maybe thirty, if it wasn't getting to the point.



So how long is too long? I've never paid too much attention to the exact number of minutes before I get tired of waiting for something scary to happen in a horror film. Or for there to at least be tension. But I do notice if it takes too long to build up, and I get restless. I'm not quick to shut off or walk out of a movie. Nor am I quick to give up on a novel. If there is anything engaging about the story, I'll stick with it for awhile more.

The thing is, each horror movie (or story, or book, or...) needs to establish the main character or characters so you can empathize with them. Horror is not horror without some manner of empathy. This is an element people unfamiliar with horror miss. Empathy is a huge factor in horror. Without empathy, there is no fear. If the audience doesn't care what happens to the protagonist, the tension is already missing. No one's pulse is pounding. Their mouths don't dry out. They don't grip their seatmates. In other words, the creators have failed.

One way to start things with a bang, in order to hopefully keep the audience/reader engaged until the action comes, is to have someone die at the hands of the creature/killer right away. Someone who isn't integral to the storyline. This establishes what is to come, without taking away from the establishing of character. Horror based television shows, such as Supernatural, do this each episode. The audience is shown an intense scene where someone who is not a series regular is killed or harmed by whatever that episode's boogie man is. Then we bop on over to the brothers, who exchange entertaining or telling dialogue, and work their way to the monster. The tension and action build to the inevitable conclusion.



Boy, that made it sound boring, but it's an effective way to do things. It keeps butts in the seats and eyeballs glued to the page, while allowing for character development, which will draw the audience/reader in further and make them care about the main protagonist. Thus feeling the fear and tension, and having a vested interest in the main character's survival. It makes them want to root for the main character. And it makes hearts pound. Plus, that little glimpse of the Big Bad, whether we actually see them or not, gives a sense of satisfaction to the viewer/reader that something good is coming, and that they will not be disappointed.

Another way is to engage the viewer/reader in a different way. Humor is a common means of getting people to like a character from the beginning. In Tremors, we see these two friends, Val and Earl, harassing each other in a humorous way. We come to like them early in the film, and then things go very badly for them. Now we're worried about them and, ultimately, the rest of the townspeople. If someone can make you laugh, it is easy to like them. And if you like them, you care about them. Now you have a little leeway in introducing the Big Bad, and you didn't have to start with a frightening action sequence.

The emotion used to engage the reader doesn't necessarily need to be humor, though. You can start with something that tugs on the heart strings, for instance. A marriage or proposal, a baby, bullying, loneliness, you name it. Whatever will make the audience identify with the person they need to care about.

Of course, you can combine these, and other means, as well. The possibilities are endless. There are really only two rules that matter:

1. Give the audience someone to care about.
2. Give the audience something to fear. (Put the character in danger.)

Everything else is secondary.

How long will you wait for a movie to get scary? What's your favorite beginning of a scary film, TV show, or book? What draws you in?

May you find your Muse.

Psycho Shower Scene, by OCAL, clker.com

28 comments:

  1. I don't have a set time or set number of pages before giving up on a horror film/show or story/book. It really just depends if something else is keeping me interested - character, setting, etc.

    One of the reasons I enjoy Stephen King's work so much is because of his characters - we really do end up caring what happens to them and that keeps us on the edge of our seats, especially because in King's work, no one is safe. :)

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    1. I completely agree with you about King's work. His character building is amazing, whether we're intended to love or hate them.

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  2. Two rules - simple! Definitely have to care about the characters. That's why I think the Friday the 13th movies are so lame.
    I'd say twenty minutes is about right.
    Jaws still has one of the best beginnings.

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    1. I haven't really watched those. I remember watching one back in middle school, but nothing interested me. I think that's about the time they tried to do a Friday the 13th television show, too, but it was different from the movies. Anyway, I can't remember any characters from the films, so I think you're right. I still remember characters from Nightmare on Elm Street. And yes on Jaws!

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  3. I have never walked out of a movie although I have wanted to, but the hope that it would get better always keeps me in the seat.

    Make relatable, root-for characters is essential, isn't it? Alex is right: Jaws had one of the best beginnings. :-)

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    1. Maybe it comes down to whether you're an optimist or a pessimist. I always hold out hope that something better will occur, so I stick it out.

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  4. Supernatural has done a great job making me care for the Winchester brothers and is that a cool name for the heroes or what. Tremors also did a good job of making it seem no one was safe and anyone could die.

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    1. Winchester is a good strong name, and one already established as a "fighting" term.

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  5. I think a good build-up is what all horror movies need. I don't necessary like or need the horror to start immediately. The suspense of it can be quite as scary.

    I love your two rules. Everyone who dabbles in horror should acquaint themselves with those rules.

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    1. I agree about suspense. In fact, sitting there waiting to see what's going to happen can really help build up to everything.

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  6. Great advice! I'm trying to get the hang of this because I always want to just jump right in with the monster or it ends up being super drawn out with cardboard victims.
    I don't watch/read a whole lot of horror, weirdly. I wouldn't call Supernatural a horror per se.. I mean, yeah it's got paranormal elements, but that doesn't equate to horror always. I love that show.

    I usually give movies about 20-30 minutes to catch me. I give books 3-4 chapters. I recently found a good amount of time to give a stand-up comedian: 15 minutes.

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    1. I wouldn't call Supernatural horror straight up, either, especially the last few years (vs the beginning when they focused on monsters of the week), but the premise/layout are the same.

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  7. First, let me just say this was an amazing blog post and very informative! I've always wanted to write a horror novel or even just a short story, but it's been a bit difficult for me.

    I watch movies more than I read (sadly) but if I can't connect with the characters, I just start laughing when bad things happen to them. As far as how long I'll wait, if there isn't tension within the first 20-30 minutes, I'll probably stop watching! One exception would be The Shining, although there are tiny little bits of tension throughout and they get bigger and bigger as the movie goes on.

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    1. I laugh through horror movies that aren't well done, too. In fact, my sister is my horror movie buddy, and we both crack up at the bad ones.

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  8. I think it really just depends. If you're doing something conventional, it has to be earlier, though.

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    1. True, the way things are written now, it often has to be sooner, just as urban fantasy has to start with action.

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  9. If the story is interesting, I can wait a while before it gets scary. But then, if there isn't enough scary stuff, it wouldn't be a horror movie! Supernatural does have it down to a tee. And nothing you can say about it can make it boring! :)

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    1. Not while there's Jensen Ackles around! ;) And I agree that if the story is interesting, I can stick it out.

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  10. I don't have a set time. It's doesn't have to get scary, per say, but something has to intrigue me.

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    1. Definitely! There must be something to hold my attention, or what's the point?

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  11. I love Sam and Dean (okay, maybe Dean mostly) and the humor in the show. Val and Earl were hilarious, too :) Love that movie.

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    1. There's no maybe for me. Dean all the way! But, yes, I love the humor and interactions between Sam and Dean, and Val and Earl.

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  12. Hi Shannon - as long as I'm engaged with the story line I'm happy - but I don't like horror movies! Cheers Hilary

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    1. True, and this applies to any genre. If you're there for a romance, you need to see hints of what's to come.

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  13. Great post. I can get very picky. If after ten minutes/ or after reading the first chapter, I don't feel intrigued, I usually stop reading or watching the movie. I'm with Hilary. I used to be able to watch horror movies, but not these days. The Conjuring still haunts me:)

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    1. The Conjuring was definitely a good one. I'm always afraid I'll miss out on something great if I give up too early. Not sure I've ever been proven right.

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  14. As long as I have someone to care about, I'm in for the long haul. Great post!!

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