As I stated before, Halloween is my favorite time of year. Like many of you who also enjoy that special day filled with ghouls, goblins, and oh yeah, candy too, one of the things I love to do is to watch some of my favorite scary movies.
I've found over the years one movie in particular seems to have become a staple of my horror movie diet: The Ring, the American version directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts. For those who may have missed this one (i.e. you've been living under a rock for the last 12 years), here's a little blurb about it:
"Before you die, you see the ring."
It sounded like just another urban legend - videotape filled with nightmarish images, leading to a phone call foretelling the viewer's death in exactly seven days. As a newspaper reporter, Rachel Keller was naturally skeptical of the story, until four teenagers all met with mysterious deaths exactly one week after watching just such a tape. Allowing her investigative curiosity to get the better of her, Rachel tracks down the video... and watches it. Now she has just seven days to unravel the mystery of the "ring".
I cannot say enough good things about this movie. I only wish I could go back in time so I can see it through fresh eyes, but even knowing how it turns out every time, it still fascinates me. It's taken me a long time to figure out why, but I think I finally have the answer:
The Ring is simply a very well-constructed story.
Below I've listed what I feel are essentials to any good story and how The Ring makes excellent use of each of these elements.
As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, your opening paragraph in a short story is THE most important part of the story. In a novel, you have a little more leeway, but you'd better have hooked your reader right from page one, otherwise you risk losing him/her.
The Ring wastes no time at all hooking the reader. You are immediately drawn into the story as the movie opens with first a discussion between two teenagers about the urban legend of the videotape, followed by the death of one of the teens - the cursed videotape's first victim. It's a pretty creepy opening, and (at the time) it was a pretty unique concept. A "high concept" in fact, which is the buzzword I hear a lot in relation to a story that can be easily pitched with a succinctly-stated premise. It's usually framed by the question "what if", as in: "What if a videotape could cause the death of the viewer exactly seven days after watching it?". This "what if" question, if done well, will cause the reader, or the viewer in this case, to want to ask more questions, like "What exactly is causing these deaths?" and "Where did the tape come from?". Reader/Viewer = hooked.
Conflict is essential to a good story, obviously. But there are other important things you should remember about story conflicts. Conflict should be introduced, or hinted at, as early as possible in the story, preferably right on the first page, definitely within the first chapter. Also, there are two kinds of conflict, internal and external (which I've also covered in previous blog posts), and a good story must have both to be effective.
In the case of The Ring, the main character's conflict starts a little late for my tastes. The Ring employs a technique I would NOT recommend, namely the use of a prologue which doesn't directly involve the main character, although I suppose it loosely does, since the girl killed at the beginning of the movie is Rachel's niece. Somehow in movies this works though, and I can forgive it in this case for an otherwise perfectly executed movie. The death of Rachel's niece is more like an inciting event, but the real conflict begins when Rachel watches the tape herself.
The problem with the curse placed on Rachel is the external conflict of the story, but there are some internal conflicts going on as well. Rachel's internal conflicts involve her need to protect her son. She also needs to resolve her past history with her son's father in the story. One could argue these are also external conflicts, but because they have such an emotional component to them, I'd categorize them more as internal ones.
What is the trend for typical horror movies? A bunch of teens get together for some partying, sex, drinking, drugs, what have you. Then they all get picked off one by one by the serial killer, all dying in interesting and unique ways, until the last survivor gets the jump on the killer. Or doesn't. Whatever. Blah. Blah blah blah.
The problem with these types of movies is that you could care less about the characters. They're all just stock characters, vehicles to showcase a lot of bloodletting and depravity by the killer, who you crazily wind up rooting for in these stories. (One of the only exceptions to my indifference to these types of movies is The Cabin in the Woods, an excellent movie which deserves an entire study itself.)
If you want the reader/viewer to be vested in your story, then you need to create characters that he/she can relate to, root for, and care about.
The Ring breaks the mold for most horror movies. It introduces a mother and son and then pits the curse against this bond. THIS is what will invest the watcher. What parent wouldn't cringe knowing his/her son may die? Or, worse, that he/she will die and leave a child alone, defenseless, in the world?
The Ticking Clock
A great plot device in many of my favorite stories is the "ticking clock". There's nothing that invests a reader more than when there's a chance the main character races against the clock but MAY NOT SUCCEED in time. This creates tension, suspense, drama, lots of action, etc. All great keys to a reader's continued interest and enjoyment of a story.
Where is the "ticking clock" in The Ring? The phone call Rachel receives after she watches the tape tells us: "Seven days". She literally has a ticking clock, a period of time where she MUST figure out how to save herself and those she loves, or they will all die.
Raising the Stakes
The main character has a problem, and then solves the problem. End of story. Exciting? If you simply describe it that way, not really. What's so exciting about a character who is presented with a problem and then solves it easily, with no additional risks, obstacles, or conflicts? Like anything in life, a goal means so much more if you've had to struggle to reach it. It's part of the human condition.
In The Ring, it's not enough that Rachel was crazy enough to watch the tape and now has to figure out how to stop the curse on her. She then involves her estranged boyfriend, who is also her son's father. So now she's responsible for TWO people. If that weren't bad enough, her son winds up watching the tape. Now the stakes have REALLY been raised. Aside from these emotional elements, there are other natural, and supernatural, forces at work to prevent her from finding the answers she seeks. (I won't go into those in case you under the rock people still haven't seen this one.)
Theme has always been one of those elusive things for me in my own writing, but when I see others make use of it, I'm impressed. Themes seem to speak to the reader/viewer on a different level, invoking views of the world on them that he/she may share, and shedding light on others that aren't so inviting. This is done many times through the use of repeated images (symbols), or even entire scenarios looked at in slightly different ways.
Two themes that are prominent in The Ring involve parent-child relationships and water. The first is used to compare and contrast loving parent-child relationships with those that weren't so loving or were strained in some way. The other is a repeated theme involving the essence behind where the cursed video tape came from. It's a very foreboding and oppressive element throughout the entire story and serves many purposes - foreshadowing; setting the ominous, somber mood; and invoking other, deeper symbolism. The dark, murky waters shown throughout the movie symbolize death, appropriately enough.
Twists and Turns
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You are on a journey with the main character. So when the main character thinks he/she has that "eureka" moment, you share in that eureka moment. But when the m.c. suddenly realizes all he/she thought was true and right was really a red herring, or not the entire story, you are frustrated inside like he/she is. Both of you try to go through the entire story in your head. Where could you have gone wrong? Where does the real answer lie? You are FULLY hooked into the story at this point, and those twists and turns are instrumental, not so much in further hooking the reader, but almost in validating whether the reader is truly hooked or not. The hooked reader MUST keep reading now, because he/she is now fully invested.
I can't really go into too much detail on how The Ring throws twists and turns into the story. This is part of the reason why I'd love to go back and watch this movie as if I have never seen it before. The twists and turns are some of the best I've seen in a story.
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What does it mean to have a satisfying ending in a story? Yes, it IS satisfying when the prince and princess get together at the end and live happily ever after. But a story doesn't have to have a happily ever after ending in order to be satisfying. The ending simply has to MAKE SENSE. A story has to have an internal logic to it, as strange as that logic might be, and the ending has to follow logical steps from the beginning. The original conflict has to be resolved, even if the outcome is a bad one. If the beginning of the story foreshadowed the events that are presented at the end, then this is definitely a sure sign the story is a well-constructed one.
Again, I don't want to give anything away for those Ring virgins. For those who HAVE seen the movie, would you say the ending a happy one? I wouldn't say so, personally. But, the movie HAS to end that way. It makes sense, in its own warped, cursed videotape world logic. In fact, the movie already hints at how it's going to end, right at the beginning.
SO... there you have it. A nice case study of a stellar horror movie, and a well-constructed story. Go out and watch it yourself if you've never seen it, so you can see what I mean. If you HAVE seen it before, maybe you never thought of the movie in this way before. So go out and watch it AGAIN.
Enjoy your Halloween, everyone. Hope it's a scream!