Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On Aftermath

Back in the day, when I was pretty young, seventh grade or so, I worshiped Perfect Dark. For the uninitiated, Perfect Dark was a game released back in 2000 for the Nintendo 64. It was a First Person Shooter with a Sci-Fi, neon-noir skin involving secret agencies, a female protagonist, aliens and corporate espionage. It was a spiritual successor to GoldenEye 007, which is hailed as one of the greatest FPS of all time.

Perfect Dark was better. It was spectacular. Everything about it, from the music to the aesthetic to the gameplay to the multiplayer...all Grade A quality. Everything that came after the game though, (except for the HD port to the XBLA Arcade), was utter shit. But that's enough about Perfect Dark. Time to talk about aftermath.

My point is this: I had a friend when I was younger who'd come over and play this game. He had a tendency to leave the game running when he left. I'd often find myself shutting it off, but then I noticed that he often almost completed the levels. I found myself picking up the controller and retracing his steps, working my way back through a level that had already been cleared of enemies. Signs of his passing were clearly marked everywhere I went: dead bodies, blood on the wall, broken computers.

Because I'm naturally a horror kind of guy, (I grew up reading basically nothing but Goosebumps), I began envisioning some kind of monster or mysterious force working its way through the level, killing everyone, and I had just arrived on the scene after the fact, and I was trying to piece together just what the hell had gone wrong.

I was enthralled.

Although I didn't know it at the time, this was my first genuine encounter with the concept of aftermath.

So what, exactly, is aftermath?

The dictionary defines it as: Something that results or follows from an event, especially one of a disastrous or unfortunate nature; consequence: the aftermath of war; the aftermath of the flood.

A lot of horror is built on aftermath, especially the horror that I like. Aftermath is important, because it implies the classic question: what happened here? Usually followed by: How do we stop it from happening to us?
If you're a horror writer, consider the aftermath approach. It's a great way to get the horror going, and it's honestly pretty fun. My first story published, Stricken, was a classic case of aftermath. It's a fantastic way to engage the reader, as those that arrive on the scene know nothing, and the reader learns about the situation as the protagonists do.

The more mysterious you can make it, the better. Put in bizarre clues, cryptic hints that leaves the protagonist scratching their head in utter confusion, or trying to imagine what could have done this, but pushing aside whatever they come up with because it's too scary. One thing that's key though is balance.

I've seen people take this approach before, and they pile on the clues that are more and more outlandish, more straight up weird, seeming to contradict each other, and you find yourself getting more and more excited, thinking, "Oh man, I have no idea what it could be! It must be really unique and original!" And then, at the end, the author pulls some bullshit and makes up something that doesn't even make sense, and you're extremely let down and ultimately you hate the book.

I definitely understand the need to keep the readers guessing. No one wants their twist figured out in the first thirty pages. But you can go too far with it. If you pile on the mysteries, but cop out at the end, your readers will end up hating you.

Another approach I've seen (and personally tried myself several times) is the 'open ending', in which the true nature of the monster/antagonist/etc., is never fully explained or even revealed. Stephen King uses this almost exclusively. I've heard a lot of frustrated grumbling that this ending is never a good idea, but I'm not so sure. One of the core truths of fiction and of life, honestly, is that people tend to imagine things that are worse in their mind than they are in life. The idea in this case is to give hints, give little bits of information, little glimpses of the monster. The reader tends to fill in the blanks, and you'll often find that they come up with something more inventive or more frightening than what you did. However, if you don't balance it just right, if there aren't enough hints and clues, you'll just end pissing the reader off.