Setting the Scene: A Half Cup of Blood
March 12, 2012
The most powerful tool that a writer has is imagination. As a rule, authors have no problem embracing their own imagination. They love to dig deep into the plot or a character’s psyche and take full advantage of the unknown, the unexplored, and the unexpected.
They shape. They mold. They create.
However, the authors who leave the lasting impression are those who carefully establish a scene or situation, build the tension to a point where it’s ready to explode, then walk away and let the reader’s own imagination take over.
Authors want to spill every detail, no matter how bloody, no matter how gory, no matter how sexy it might be.They tell it all, brother. They tell it all.
And they don’t need to.
Those who saw the original version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out of the theaters during the 1970s fully convinced that they had witnessed the goriest, the bloodiest, and the most gruesome movie of all time.
But it wasn’t what they had seen on the screen that kept them awake at night. It was the scenes that had played out in the dark and deep recesses of their own minds.
The writer and the director of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper, was a friend of mine. We had gone to school together at The University of Texas, and I knew that he had made the movie on the barest of budgets, having about $80,000 to invest in the production.
Tobe Hooper made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a half a cup of blood.
But he was a genius at building a scene. He created a cast of believable characters that you genuinely thought you knew and cared about. He threw them into a face-to- face confrontation with the strangest, most disconcerting, and frightening family ever placed on the silver screen.
He slowly and methodically built the scene. His characters were frightened. They panicked. They were cornered and had no place to go. And suddenly the theater was blasted with the ungodly and unnerving sound of a chainsaw cranking up.
The sound of the chainsaw grew closer.
The scream was muted in a terrified heart.
The scene abruptly ended, and your mind took over. You had just been mesmerized, probably against your will, by the bloodiest, goriest, and most gruesome scene you had ever witnessed. You were trembling, afraid to breathe, and maybe even stifling your own scream. You shut your eyes. You looked away. There was no need.
On the screen, you saw nothing at all.
Tobe turned it over to your imagination. And that is the most wicked place of all for the story to be. As he told me, “A person’s imagination saw worst things than I could have ever created and shot, regardless of how big my budget might have been.”
According to Jesse Stommel of Bright Lights Film Journal, “the lack of explicit violence in the film forces viewers to question their own fascination with violence that they play a central role in imagining.” Citing the film’s feverish camera moves, repeated bursts of light, and auditory pandemonium, Stommel asserted that the movie involved the audience on a sensory rather than an intellectual level.
Tobe Hooper knew how to lead you into a scene. And more importantly, he knew when and how to get out of it.
Did his way of doing things to stimulate the imagination create a hit? Well, Tobe made the movie for just over $80,000. It grossed thirty million dollars, not bad for a little indie film in the 1970s. It earned him a lifetime contract with Universal Studios and such films as Poltergeist and Salem’s Lot.
When writing, the most critical task facing an author is leaving a scene that he or she has fallen in love with. They reach the punch line. They deliver it. It has impact. But authors refuse to walk away from the scene. They keep right on going.
They commit the unpardonable sin. They don’t trust their readers.
Unless you are writing for a publisher that demands for all bodices to be ripped and the pages filled with ample bosoms and an overheated damsel screaming to possess the long, lean muscles of Mr. Right, then I find it much more tantalizing to lead into a sex scene this way: “He put his arm around her waist and led her into the bedroom. The door closed slowly behind them.”
That’s all you have to say.
Everyone reading the novel knows what happens next, and generally their mental descriptions of the scene are far more powerful, alluring, enticing, and beguiling than anything you could put on paper.
Let your reader’s mind enter the story, slip behind that closed door, become a fly on the wall, a voyeur of sorts, and handle the details. Your reader prefers it that way.
In the same manner, I have never understood why an author feels obligated to kill off a character and paint a vivid scene, with wide variations, of the bullet tearing through flesh, the skull cracking open, bone splinters bouncing off the wall behind him, and blood pouring out the wound, spreading thick and red on the sidewalk.
I prefer to set the scene, take the readers along for the ride, then let them provide any detail their imaginations may be able to conjure up.
In my novel, Last Deadly Lie, the reader knew all along that the mother was angry with Nathan Locke, the preacher. They followed her into church that morning. They sat down with her in the pew. And I finished the scene this way:
No one saw Helen Jensen as she quietly arose from her place on the first pew and reached into her purse. She stood before Nathan Locke, less than five feet away, and pulled Robert’s .38 caliber pistol from her purse.
She raised it eye level, clutching the gun with both hands to hold it steady, and aimed it virtually point blank at Nathan Locke’s head.
He didn’t see her.
No one saw her.
Nathan Locke was praying, uttering perfect words for a perfect time in his life.
In the name of the Father.
And the Holy Ghost.
Helen Jensen slowly squeezed the trigger.