Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reality Hacks

Genre Hack, Julie Marsh, wrote and interesting and instructive piece (below) on how genre movies separate the viewer from reality. Budding genre screenwriters, take notes, she's created a new term:

Reality Hack

The moment when a narrative abruptly departs from reasonable expectations of the ordinary.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

Dorothy’s classic utterance shines a light on one of the most powerful opportunities afforded to the writer of fantastical narratives, in any genre, in any medium.

By the time a filmgoer walks into a multiplex, or sits down to munch microwave popcorn with Netflix, he or she has seen trailers, reviews, poster art, and maybe even an SNL parody. Viewers have a whole passel of pre-conceived notions, but when a writer does the job right, that crystalline moment when mundane physics, gravity and reason fall away, can still deliver a gut-punch.

The moment when a narrative departs from the reasonable expectation of reality is absolutely precious. Savor it. Make it sing, sting, or stun. The storyteller’s real job is to master the expectations of the reader/viewer, to move them off their spot and in a direction they might not have imagined or chosen. How better to demonstrate mastery over those expectations than to suddenly bewilder the audience’s sense of normal time and space?

HOW you separate us from our reality is an efficient way to re-enforce clear genre and establish tone. Since genre is where craft meets marketplace, this moment can really anchor your narrative to the climax.

    • Horror looks for a good scare or surprise.
    • Fantasy looks for wonder & escape, usually through a magic portal
    • SciFi looks for realism and a logical extrapolation of the known universe
    • Action looks for reality-bending, escalating thrills
    • Magical Realism wants a poetic or whimsical twist on reality, often linked to a POV
    • Broad Comedy wants an outrageous and/or disgusting set-up & demands a laugh

At some point, you want to firmly yank the “Reality Rug” out from under the viewer. But maybe not all at once. Contemplate WHEN:


A tease can be quite tantalizing. Most horror movies protract the very thing we all know is coming. As soon as you buy a ticket to something called ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, you’re gonna be pissed if something doesn’t jump out at you early and slaughter some poor sacrificial lamb we haven’t had time to care about by page 10. Characters early in the story are often heard to whisper: “What was that noise?” Think of the tease offered by the accumulated reaction shots of Haley Joel Osmet’s character in THE SIXTH SENSE. Every look accrues to a sense of dread and curiosity. “What does he see? What’s he so afraid of? How soon do we get to see it? Do I want to see it??” Ah, we do, but we don’t. That’s the beauty of the tease.


If you’re shopping for that requisite hook for your first 10 pages, what could be better than pulling off a surprising reversal in the first moments of the film? A solid reversal requires that you set up an expectation, but since this reversal conscripts pre-existing expectations of reality and physics, the audience has entered the theater with these firmly in mind. The more resoundingly you can defy those expectations the better. For some reason, the first moments of BUCKAROO BANSAI come to mind. The over-the-top comic book tone is established by the hero’s prowess as a world-class brain surgeon, a stunt followed by a land-speed world record attempt across a salt flat. The reversal comes when Buckaroo’s rocket car veers toward a head-on collision with solid rock. On purpose. Buckaroo, a recreational physicist, also happens to have discovered a way to pass through solid matter. He plunges into the rock face, entering the space between particles, and emerges unharmed. Not a bad hook.


If your science fiction or fantasy piece takes place in a completely alternate reality, time, or world, you may need to establish that boldly, up-front. Still, one must offer some familiar point of reference to create identification for the audience, so they step into the new world with you. If your job is to efficiently cast a whole reality, you better get started right out of the gate. Look at LORD OF THE RINGS, which grounds us lovingly in the Shire and establishes our charming notion of “home” for the next couple of hours. BLADERUNNER, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a stark, polluted skyline, with futuristic vehicles. It seems alien. Moments later we are grounded by the familiar conventions and costumes of Film Noir. Even a musical often opens with a song, and thereby inaugurates an irrational universe in which silly people are free to burst into song and music will mysteriously swell from no where to accompany them.

Whichever option you use, don’t wait too long to establish genre, tone, and degree of irrationality. For the departure from reality to succeed, the audience must be right there with you. If you wait too long, you risk that the audience will no longer be prepared to suspend their disbelief. I once read a script that spent 70+ pages weaving a drug cartel crime intrigue with a hidden agenda. When the hidden agenda turned out to be related to aliens, my jaw dropped.

Take the irrational universe of a Farrelly Brothers comedy. The absurd tone is established spectacularly up front and makes space in the story for just how broad and unreal the situations will get. Otherwise, they risk that the audience will think a late gag is unbelievable and merely dumb. Take the first joke in SOMETHING ABOUT MARY in which Mary’s mentally-challenged brother Warren is the brunt of an impossibly cruel joke. Warren is tricked into asking a cheerleader “Have you seen my wiener?” right in front of her jock boyfriend. Voila. Welcome to the lucrative world of gross-out humor and humiliation at the expense of handicapped people!

And remember, the absolute #1 Rule of Genre is that your job is to selectively break and undermine the “Rules.”

Julie Marsh is a writer, producer and professional story consultant working in all genres for film and games.

Her DVD on writing for Horror,
Genre Works: The Screenwriter's Guide to Horror
is available from Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

Her website is

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