Tag: Last Days

The importance of showing vs not showing a damn thing


Superhero movies are crap.

There, now I have your attention. Although I will assure you that sentence has more purpose than to grab your attention, because by and large it’s true. Fight me. No, don’t, unless it’s at Street Fighter and I can pick e Honda. Super hero films are, mostly, shite. They fall back on the same characters who by the will of the studios, can’t grow, fight the same handful of well-known antagonists, and tell stories already told. Often multiple time.

Seriously, Uncle Ben and Bruce’s parents have been killed more times than Jack Harkness.

But, as usual, there are exceptions. Man of Steel (fight me again) is one, for reasons I won’t go into here, and the Avengers, for a particular reason I will.

There are a few reasons the Avengers is a standout. Joss Whedon is one, that it can forgo the character and scene setting most other films have to sink time into is another. But I want to talk about a particular shot.  This one, in fact. And more specifically, the last 8 seconds:

For those who haven’t seen the film (and there are many, because superhero films are crap, remember?) here we see Bruce Banner being convinced veeeeery gently to come join the fun. But it’s the last part which is telling. Throughout the scene the hut has been surrounded by a squad of heavily armed soldiers. But why? Nothing happened. We saw nowt. In and of itself, that scene isn’t great, but that eight second camera swap was the payoff that made.

They were scared. That’s tight storytelling. That tells the viewer, even if they don’t know who Bruce Banner, that there’s something terrifying just below the surface.

The same technique is used in Inglorious Basterds, where we first meet Donny Donowitz, AKA, the Bear Jew:

And if you want a longer build up of the same, Jaws, where an entire town is held in sway by a threat we know is there, but all we see are the after effects of what that threat is capable of.

Done right, this technique is effective as hell. It draws on the viewer / reader’s own imagination because they – and us writers often hate to admit it – can conjure up much more frightening sights than we ever could. It’s one reason why The Blair Witch project and Paranormal Activity were so bloody frightening.

We’re often told to show, don’t tell, but not showing can be even more effective. By purposefully not showing, but describing around the subject, we give it context, we amplify its meaning, its potential.

Perhaps the best use of this in fiction is my firm favourite Adam Nevill, especially in his novel Last Days. The first half of the novel is the usual scrabblings in the dark, the shuddering of cupboards from within, btu delivered with Nevill’s visceral style.

Another example would be Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. Even non-fans of Warhammer 40k (and there are many, because if anything can suck harder than superhero movies it’s IP fiction – fight me all over again) would do well to read this first novel in the Horus Heresy series. Abnett treats the Astartes (giant, power-armoured supersoldiers of the far futures) as a antural disaster, showing us the after affects of these soldiers’ actions on the regular humans who witness them and who – and here’s the thing – are on the same side. Shell shock by proxy. Before you even see them you’re in awe of what they can do. It’s effective.  Hell, it’s effecting.

Don’ describe the monster. Once it’s a monster, it’s a monster, and monsters can be beaten. But beating something that exists only in your head? Aye, give that a go.



Learning My Place


I’ve made no secret I have something of a man crush on Adam Nevill.  Or rather, on his writing.  Anyone who hasn’t read Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16 or The Ritual is really doingthemselves a disservice.  His writing is visceral in a way I can only hope o imitate, and if the world is just he will become recognised as one of those writers whom the literati pretend don’t exist because it negates their arguments that genre authors can’t write.

Anyway, he has a new novel coming out next month, and the reviews I’ve read so far say Last Days is one step ahead of his last The Ritual.  If this is true I’m going to be a happy (and scared) reader.  So to warm myself up I went looking for some interviews with Nevill, and as i so often do after reading writers such as him or China Mieville express their thoughts, I come away feeling stupid.  How could I ever hope to emulate such a talented writer, and who am I to presume to even try?

Well I try because I’m too hard headed not to, and I always like it when I think I’m pissing someone, somewhere, off.

Anyway, please share my excitement.  Here’s a portion of the interview with Nevill from the fine people over at Spooky-Reads.com.

You’ve talked elsewhere about the real and perceived threat of physical violence present in society today, in other interviews, the nature of the Anglo Saxon condition. Here in the forest in The Ritual you still have a micro-culture represented, and despite ‘friends’ together, violence propagating. Luke clearly has anger management (amongst other issues) but do you see the violence a product of our times – impatience/instant reaction without thought – or as stemming from deeper cultural/atavistic seat?

A good question, and a big one. Violence is ever present, as is its potential to explode. Its causes are manifold. Its seat is embedded in human nature; we weaned ourselves on the genocide of other primates. Our continuing propensity for violence demotes us, in my opinion, down the hierarchy of the animal kingdom.

I think it’s why my stories stray into anthropomorphism and animism, because it’s a good way of depicting our grotesqueness. And there are so many circumstances that still seem to provoke violence; in fact, wherever more than one person gathers, it’s possible. And when we’re alone, even suicide and self-harm are possible.

We are assaulted for being young, old, attractive, unattractive, for being male or female, for leaving the house at the wrong time, for being black, brown and white; we’re assaulted because we have what someone else wants, we’re assaulted for being strangers, we’re assaulted because someone is frustrated, or angry, or aroused and derives pleasure from our distress, we’re assaulted because we are defenceless, or because Rangers loose to Celtic, or we’re at home when someone wants our laptop … and on and on and on.

How can we ever get to the bottom of this? A significant portion of humanity either has no conscience, or easily suppresses it. Another portion doesn’t think about consequences and seems to commit it out of recreation or a perverse sense of revenge for being disrespected. Yet another believes anything is justifiable in the pursuit of its self-interest. Another significant section was brutalised in childhood. For others it becomes the focus of their territorial and caste culture. Or, it can be a form of status. It goes on and on. The reasons for it are manifold.

Throughout history, the educated and civilised have also thrown their hat into the ring, repeatedly; invested and intellectualised their frustrations into scapegoats, demonised them and slaughtered them on grand scale. The ordinary will become complicit in political murder from behind a desk to maintain their position within a hierarchy. Violence becomes the discourse too easily, is almost legitimised around alcohol. There is a terrible irrational momentum in humanity that seems too easily roused, especially in group dynamics.

I’ve dealt with only a few areas of violence, for instance in Apartment 16 where it is recreational and random and unpredictable in modern Britain where repressed hostility is loosened so quickly by alcohol. A few years ago in a pub near where I live, a man was murdered inside the bar for complaining about another patron smoking a joint; eighteen people were arrested for the killing. We see the stats, but can you imagine the savagery in a supposedly civilised country? Eighteen people destroyed a stranger with their hands and feet. Even in Norway, the show home of the West, a subculture of young people murdered each other, then strangers randomly, and burned churches in the nineties.

From the streets and wars of the first world to genocide in the developing world; humanity is a force of violence. I’m speaking out loud and shouldn’t have to remind anyone of this. After all, tragically, it could probably be argued that human rights are a minority interest for the west. When will we evolve?

I think, increasingly, we also live in pathological times here in the west and that’s what feeds my concepts as a writer: a competitive, time-pressured, having-it-all culture driven by greed, resentment, and the show of me. There is something particularly vulpine and petulant about the violence that comes from it – whether it’s a woman scarring another for life with a champagne flute, or teenagers killing one of their peers who looked in their direction or allegedly said something to someone else etc..

The predictability is tedious. Doesn’t seem to take much provocation these days for someone to lose an eye, or worse. I’ve always thought it was a last resort to be pulled out when your own life was in genuine danger. Apparently not. And I’ll clearly never run out of material because of it. I sometimes wonder why all books aren’t about violence? And yet writing about the horrors of violence is most often seen as trite, or low brow. Well, as a species we are mostly trite and low brow.