[Quick Summary: After his wife and child die in a kidnapping, a Southern real estate investor falls into a deep emotional freeze, until he meets his wife's look alike.]
In the land of "De Palma weird,"* this story is mild, but the twist is creeeeepy.
I thought that I'd be too creeped out to read on...but it's an addictive page turner.
Why? Why is this creepy but good vs. other creepy thriller/horrors just tedious?
I think the secret is NOT THE CREEPY PARTS:
1) The secret is to lay out a character's emotional dilemma that stirs our empathy.
ex. In this story, Michael Courtland has his wife and child stripped from him, then he descends into hell. His wound never heals and he is emotionally stuck in 1957.
2) Now the character's RESPONSE to the dilemma can go screwy/creepy/wild.
ex. Twenty years later, he meets a woman who looks like his dead wife. He drags her to the old places, has her wear the wife's clothes. He's unmoored and doesn't notice.
Do I really need #1? Yes.
Why can't I just do smash a bunch of screwy/creepy/wild scenes together? ** #1 teaches me to care about the characters. A stream of #2 won't hold on the reader.
Note below how the writer:
- Lay out the dilemma (Mike's emotional vulnerability in his first date with Sandra)
- Lay out the threat (his spying business partner La Salle)
- Prepare us for Mike's response later when he finds out
ex. "There is an awkward moment as they say goodnight. Sandra's prepared to accept a goodnight kiss, but Michael is afraid to offer one. Instead, he extends his hand in a shy, awkward way, and she takes it.
COURTLAND: Goodnight, Sandra.
SANDRA: Buona notte, Mike.
They turn and go their separate ways. The CAMERA PANS with Courtland as he walks down the street. Suddenly it STOPS on a man watching from an alley. We ZOOM IN TO DISCOVER it's La Salle."
WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Take the time to first lay out the character's present emotional state and dilemma, no matter what the genre. Otherwise, it's forgettable.
by Paul Schrader
Story by Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader
*De Palma scripts are outliers, i.e., they lie outside the normal bell curve of weird.
"De Palma weird" = My attempt to describe this outlying weirdness level.
** This is especially true of what I call "horror porn" scripts where it is scene after scene of gruesome --> more gruesome --> gross out. There is no emotional development, and it becomes tiresome.