Monday, May 11, 2009

hodge podge: Star Trek; horror movies where everyone dies; and writing books that readers want to live in

We saw Star Trek last night, and loved it. I have no storytelling peeves, like I had after seeing Wolverine last week. Though I watched the original Star Trek in syndication, it's been a long time and I never watched any of the spin-offs; I don't remember too much about the show, but it was still fun to see the reimagining of the characters. Simon Pegg was great as Scotty, and who'd have guessed that Karl Urban (Eomer the "horse lord," Eowyn's brother from LOTR) would make such a perfect Bones? But the movie really belonged to Kirk and Spock, who were both awesome. And Eric Bana as the creepy Romulan!? I'd never have recognized him.

Jim pointed out that the writers did something brilliant, which was: (this is not a spoiler) by introducing some fancy fantasy-physics (i.e. time warps), they completely rebooted the story. That is, they do not now, in sequels, have to adhere to the timeline as established by the TV show or the other movies. They're free. Isn't that great? Unlike in Wolverine (which, admittedly, could not have resorted to time warps), they don't have to be careful not to ruffle the flow of events. It's been ruffled and reshuffled. They can do whatever they want now. Awesome.

So, no storytelling peeves there, but I do have an unrelated movie peeve, and it's this: what's up with horror movies where everyone dies at the end? Jim and I like horror movies. Not slashery gorefests (things like Saw, we refer to as "torture porn" and do not watch), but scary movies. But we've now counted four recent ones in which no one survives. What is UP with that? It's so unsatisfying! Can you imagine reading a book where everyone is dead at the end? Have you read a book like that? I can't think of any. I feel like that would be a tremendous violation of the "pact" between reader and writer, which is perhaps more sacred than that between movie-maker and movie-watcher. Do you think? Do you think that because the link between a reader and a character is so powerful, you know, the way we consent to "become" that character while we're reading, that to kill the character off in a book would be worse than to do it in a movie? I don't know, but I'd be pissed if that happened in a book. If you can think of any, let me know. I've listed the movies I'm talking about at the bottom of the post (the last two are crazy scary and would be awesome if not for the "everyone dies" factor), but if you haven't seen them and plan to, this will spoil the ending for you, so beware.

So, off the topic of movies. I am giving a talk tomorrow evening to the Writing for Children class at the University of Washington. I'm excited! What I'm going to talk to them about is: writing books that readers want to live in; writing characters readers want to be. I'm not saying I've nailed this in my own writing, but it's what I'm chasing. It's my goal. The kind of book I hope to write is the kind readers want to climb right inside of. When I find a book like that, I spend a little time trying to figure out just how the author did it.

I do believe the essential "secret" of Harry Potter's success is that J.K. Rowling did this so well. I mean, there are a lot of elements that go into it, it's no one easy-to-define thing, but I think that's the fundamental magic it's got: it makes us yearn to really be there, sitting in Professor McGonegal's class learning to transfigure things, or putting on the Sorting Hat and seeing what house we'd end up in, or whatever. You know? Same with Twilight: it taps a basic fantasy in a very direct and deft way: the fantasy of being the ordinary girl who becomes the object of sublime love of an extraordinary boy.

I think it's the secret of Pride and Prejudice's enduring success too. These books make us long to live in them. They're the ones we reread multiple times, write fan fiction of, etc. They distill the quintessence of "escapsism" -- and when I use that word, I do not mean it in a negative way at all (I wrote more about escapism way back HERE, along with pre-pink-hair pictures!). In my opinion, as a lover of fantasy and romance, escapism is just about the highest level of magic in reading -- the ability of the writer to enchant a reader right out of the world they actually live in, to essentially remove them from their own body, their own reality, and entice them into a world of your own creation, and make them wish they could stay there? That's . . . wow. You know? So, viva la escapism. How to do it as perfectly as possible? That's my question.

Anyway, that's what my talk is about, and today I'm refining it, seeing if I can put it into better words, if I can figure out any "secrets" along the way :-)

Oh, and since I've mentioned Pride and Prejudice and of horror movies in one post, it's only right to show you what books I bought last night at Powell's:
tee hee. The middle one? I didn't think I was going to buy this, but . . . I did. What can I say? As for the others, neither are new, but I've been meaning to read both forever. Since Adam Rex is going to be at the SCBWI conference next weekend, it's time to finally read Smekday. Looking forward to it!

Now, horror movies where everyone dies at the end:
The Ruins
The Descent

(Any others? Someone pointed out to me that Dawn of the Dead fits this category, but I don't really remember. Blair Witch, I think, kicked off the trend in the movies above, two of which also use the hand-held camera trick, in which the camera is the only testament to events left at the end because everyone is dead. Phleh.)


lizardek said...

Everyone dies in Hamlet, don't they?

Laini Taylor said...

Hamlet? Yes, I suppose they do -- but Hamlet is not a book. I mean, it is now, but that is not its original or proper form, so I don't think it really counts. As my Shakespeare professors would point out: these plays were never intended to be "read".

I'm sure there are books where everyone dies, I just can't think of any off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

I ordinarily completely agree with you Fatty but I do think having everyone perish in the end worked really well in the Brady Bunch finale....don't you? It was so unexpected. It was a really powerful punch to everyone.

Laini Taylor said...

Anonymous: I think I could support that ending :-)

Charlotte said...

I know a very good book in which everyone dies, but if I tell you what it is, you will know that everyone dies and it will be a bad spoiler.

However, thinking about it more, the title perhaps gives it away anyhow--And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.

You might like it.

Natalie Whipple said...

Star Trek was pretty dang awesome. I'd actually see it again. In theaters. It's been a long time since I could say that.

Not a fan of everyone dying, and I can't think of a book that happens in. I agree that you've invested so much as a reader that it would be quite the rage-inducing finale.

To create a world others would want to live in—my biggest dream. Someday, hopefully.

Kiersten White said...

Ooh, yes, And Then There Were None! Only mystery I've ever read.

But I'm definitely not a fan of the everyone dies trick. Except--one of the girls in Cloverfield did, in fact, get away in the helicopter. Or maybe not. But you didn't know whether or not hers was the one that got knocked out of the sky.

Can't wait to see Star Trek. Except I'm still disappointed they didn't cast James McAvoy as Scotty--because he was in talks for the part.

Sniff, sniff.

Anywho. A story you want to crawl into...I like that ; )

Laini Taylor said...

Kiersten, as much as I love tiny James, Simon Pegg was really perfect for the part. Scotty is the comic relief character, so he just fits better than James :-)

Charlotte, I'll have to read that Agatha Christie.

And Natalie, yeah, I'd see it again too!

Jessica Day George said...

Movies in which there is much death: Sunshine (although it's excellent) and Event Horizon (which is horrible). Also Solaris. Which is based on a book, in which every dies (by Stanislaw Lem)! In the book The Descent by Jeff Long, which has nothing to do with the movie, I think two out of a hundred people make it out (this is not counting the people all over the world who have died in huge bunches throughout the book), and at the end of Katherine Kurtz's brilliant-yet-harrowing The Bastard Prince, there are about three people left, but if you check the handy family tree in the appendix, you will note that they will bite it shortly.

Amber Lough said...

You will really enjoy Smekday. It's one of my favorite books--the kind that I buy lots of to give away as gifts. (You'll also enjoy Adam Rex because not only is he adorable, but he's the funniest guy around. Also, his wife is an astrophysicist, which is just cool.)

Laini Taylor said...

Jessica: Oh yes, you're right about Sunshine, which WAS awesome. Though I had hopes of some characters making it back alive, the storytelling made a solid argument for what happened. Plus, it was sacrifice for the sake of All Humanity, so a little different and grander. And I don't think I know anyone else whose read The Descent. We loved it, but I would not have loved it if the two main characters didn't survive. (I did wonder if the movie of The Descent did originate from the book, though; I mean, the movie could have been one tiny chapter of the book, you know?)

And Amber, I know: an astrophysicist! Very cool. (Aren't you sort of married to an astrophysicist too? :-)

Laini Taylor said...

(Amber: I don't mean "sort of" married; I mean "sort of "astrophysicist". Ha ha. I can't remember what kind of physics Jim does, just that it's something smartypantsy!)

Charlotte said...

Oh, I thought of another book in which everyone dies--On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. You know they are all doomed almost right away, and so do they, so it is not a betrayal on the part of the author. It is a great and powerful book, but hauntingly terrible.

Kiersten White said...

Oh, fine. I guess that's okay then.

Still, James had better get The Hobbit...

Laini Taylor said...

Ah yes, I'm totally with you there!

Olivia said...

Actually, did you know that in Cloverfield after the end credits there is this gargled sound that says 'help us' and if you replay it backwards it says 'it's still alive'. And, they are thinking about making a Cloverfield 2, so it is possible that some of the characters are alive...

holly cupala said...

Yes, Jim, yes! I thought the same thing. Brilliantly done...

**(possible spoiler alert)***

...though it kind of invalidates the post-NCC-1701 world, boo. And I wondered, would JTK still have begun in the same place (in the location sense) if the initial events of the movie took place? Also, I had a tiny peeve about how the villain was dealth with--unfair to make us care about his motives and then end that way.

Ok, I am a total geek. :)

Laini Taylor said...

Wow, Holly, you are a total geek! :-)
I had to look up NCC-1701. Had NO idea that was the Enterprise. ha ha! I kind of agree with you about Nero: giving him any kind of sympathetic backstory was an interesting choice. But then . . . as a non-Trekkie, I wouldn't have known if Romulans were just pure evil baddies. The whole pregnant wife thing provided some context. I wonder if that is why they did it?

Q said...

And Then There Were None is so awesome, though. Totally freaky, but I didn't feel...unfulfilled. Okay, I kind of did. But not in a way that would make the book repulsive to me.

I love those books that I want to live in. Except I'm kind of a coward so there's that part of me that says, "NO! You are SAFE here!" but most of me says, "Find that panel at the front of the book and LINK THERE RIGHT NOW." (Did you ever play the computer game Myst? It's ancient now but pretty cool nonetheless.)

Wyman Stewart said...

"At The Back of The North Wind" by George MacDonald, not everyone dies, but it does have a disturbing ending for young children, I think. Or it did for me as a child. My copy was published by Doubleday Books, but you would be lucky to find it at a public library today. I believe it is a 19th. Century book by a leading children's author of that century, who inspired many later authors, C.S. Lewis, among them. Sorry, saying all of this from fading memories.

The original Grimm's Fairy Tales were based on many stories that had quite unhappy and disturbing endings, as I recall. In fact, I think they were meant to teach children important lessons, although I have heard many of them started out as adult stories.

"Event Horizon", which a friend gave to me many years ago, appears to me to be one of the worst movies ever made and hardly scientific.

I think killing off everyone or even main characters in books, without doing so for the gore, is almost not allowed in books. I think that is a shame. How can a writer be truly creative if a writer feels the logical conclusion is to kill off everyone in his/her story, yet knows publishers won't buy it and even if they do, the public probably won't buy it?

In the true history of books such as "Hiroshima", and harder to find, "Nagasaki", one is given a kind of fate worse than death picture, along with an unrepentent President Harry Truman. The moral debate over all this is still with us today. There are times authors need to make us think. That may require every character die in a book to do that. Just my thoughts; thanks.

Em said...

Hi Laini, thanks for the comment on my Sarah Dessen Challenge post! I'll definitely add which ones are good to start with on my recommendations. Good idea! :)

Commander Kip said...

MYST! That is an awesome, awesome game. I love the idea of being able to 'link' somewhere through a book.

We're gonna go see Star Trek tomorrow. Scotty is the coolest. *loves his accent* Ha! I love it in the preview when he's like, "Ei leik thes shep. Et's exceitin'!" *repeats to self several times, giggling loudly*

Linda said...

I remember feeling pretty unfulfilled at the end of Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien (who also gave us Mrs. Frisby...anyone? anyone?). Z had a lot of potential but ended in a sort of irritating way.

p.s. Laini, I looked at that old post with the pics of you with blond-ish was so much fun to see! You totally rock the pink locks. Are you going to go back to full-on pink after Baby arrives? :-)
p.p.s. I loved that little baby sundress you got. Cute and comfy!

Lexi said...

Smekday is A VERY GOOD BOOK.

Carrie Harris said...

Mrs. Frisby! Did someone say Mrs. Frisby? Now there is an awesome book, and not everyone dies at the end. Because I'm with you, Laini. I hate that. Hubby and I even have a song for that, which we sing in loud and annoying tones when watching those movies. It goes something like, "They ran, they ran, they ran, they ran, and thentheydied!"

Only you need to sing it like a German metal band to get the full effect.

Christine Fletcher said...

I wonder if this is why a lot of YA is so popular even with adults..."writing books that readers want to live in; writing characters readers want to be." I just know that I get this a LOT more in YA fiction than I do in mainstream or literary adult fiction. I get so tired of reading books where I don't like any of the characters, and I'm not compelled to care what happens to them. This isn't a problem in most YA.

So glad to read the good review on ST! I can't wait to see it...we'll go this weekend, I think. Woot!

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Wait--in the movie version of The Ruins, one girl gets away--it's the book version, believe it or not, where everyone dies!

I can't wait to see Star Trek. Though it'll probably be DVD for us parents of a nearly 1 year old! Just wait. You'll worship whomever babysits and allows you to go to the movies after the babe is born.

Anonymous said...

Smekday is the best book ever. SO. FUNNY.

On death of main characters in a book, i personally think that if done well and for a purpose can be both moving and satisfying. I can't stand pointless death and gore or a death of someone that didn't need to die, but i think we have kind of shoved tragedy out the window and labeled it depressing when there is definitely a place for it in the literary world. We are happily-ever-after addicts.

Liana said...

Re: escapism (as a good thing, of course!)-
I just read Blackbringer for the...I think....4th time.

Do you know why? It's because I LOVE to be inside that world and I LOVE to spend time with those characters.

Needless to say, I really really want Silksinger...NOWnownow. Ahem. (also, of course, Lips Touch :)

So- seriously, like the Harry Potter books or LOTR books or even Agatha Christie's Poirot books, I love to read Blackbringer over and over and be within the world and with the characters you've created.
Every time I read it, it delights me anew. So, thank you :)

Jennifer D said...

Didn't everyone die at the end of "The Mist"?

Laini Taylor said...

Liana, thank you SO MUCH! :-)

Ah, Jennifer. The Mist. What an ending! I think that Tom Jane was still alive at the end, but he had to have killed himself soon after, because it was just so awful. But good! Good-awful :-)