C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Review: Storytelling problems and the finale of #Dexter

This isn’t my usual sort of blog post, but it’s time to talk about storytelling problems and, unfortunately, the Dexter series finale is Exhibit A. Spoilers ensue, so you’ve been warned.

1. The final season of Dexter was mostly rudderless. Masuka has a daughter. Yay! If she was a plant from the FBI, she would have been useful to the plot. Instead, she gave the comic relief guy no opportunities to do comedy. Nice topless sports bar, but otherwise, why is she there? We want Masuka to be Masuka with lines like, “Science is a cold-hearted bitch…”

2. Dexter’s struggle to become human is betrayed in the final scene. Okay, Pinocchio becomes a real boy and decides feelings suck. He returns to being a monster with his final look. The struggle wasn’t interesting enough because it more internal than external. Hard to do in film. Easier in a novel, but still tricky.

3. The last scene felt tacked on and dragged on too long. Were we really supposed to wonder if that’s Dex, or perhaps the satellite flipped the channel to a lugubrious episode of Ice Road Truckers? If they wanted to sap the power of “And the body was never found,” they should have done it in a strobe flash POV shot with bearded Dexter standing over a kill table in a cabin, long knife in hand, snowshoes on the wall. 

4. The show made us love a serial killer’s exploits in Miami. Dexter had a good life and an endless supply of pulled pork sandwiches. Now he’s alone in Alaska or Canada. Dex is alone so no one he cares for will get killed. We get it. However, you don’t leave Batman poor with no Batcave and no Batmobile. A downer ending would have been okay, but this punished viewers. He’s still Dexter, but now he’s got no inside track from inside a police station and fewer opportunities to be the Avenger. We want him on that wall! We need him on that wall!

5. The show worked best when Dexter was constantly in danger of being caught. I didn’t think Dex was ever in much danger of being caught. Maybe it was a lack of lines and physical presence, but Elway and the US Deputy Marshall never came close to feeling like a credible threat. The Marshall reminded me of Ty Pennington and looked like he should be giving one lucky family an extreme home makeover instead of closing in on Dexter. Elway’s hair looked like he might have been the front man for a New Wave band in the ’80s, but the private dick, the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? We’re not talking about Shaft here.

6. With the build up to the arrival of the hurricane, I pictured a Hitchcockian ending complete with a fight to the death aboard the Slice of Life. Once Oliver is caught (again) the narrative drive is lost and there’s no goal except to explore feelings. The folks behind the show overestimated our patience for repeated flashbacks to Deb and Dex in the maternity ward. For that to work, they needed to at least bring Rita into the flashback. (We would have forgiven so much for that cameo.) They bring Miguel’s wife back as a real estate agent, but the name “Rita” is never spoken? (They came close with Harrison’s drawing, but no.)

7. Plot holes abound through the season. It really bugs me when the mechanics of a script only work if the characters do incredibly dumb things. This season, no computer was password-protected, the Deputy Marshall doesn’t recognize Oliver and Hannah stays at Deb’s house. Perhaps most egregious (because it was in our faces every time we saw her) Hannah always looks exactly like her mugshot and it never occurs to her or Dex that she could cut and dye her hair. Even the most brainless fugitive would do that much. Man or woman, if you’re on the run, shave your head!

8. The season progressed as if there was no plan. From one episode to the next, Zack goes from being so clueless he doesn’t know to wear gloves to leaving Dex a clue behind on purpose? Anybody from the later seasons of Lost working on this thing? Can we have the writers from John Lithgow’s season, please? How about we get a mulligan?

9.  The theme of the season was the ties that bind: mother-son, father-son, sister-brother, friends and family. What got us hooked on Dexter was none of the above. Anybody else notice that when Harry disappears, it doesn’t feel like a strong beat? Harry’s been Dexter’s coach for years, but when he’s gone, it feels faster than Rick Schroeder’s throwaway disappearance from NYPD Blue.

10. The wasted opportunities made me sad. If I’d written the final season (and were king of the universe so I could do anything I want) it would have been a cat and mouse game between Dexter and Quinn and Batista. Batista had a box of paper LaGuerta left behind that contained the phone records that made her suspicious. Quinn had already been suspicious of Dex (which he let go and forgot about after Dex did him a solid.) Those suspicions are the seeds of a plot that would have carried the inertia from last season and given LaGuerta’s death significance and consequence.

Batista was the single most underused character and, I would argue, the beating human heart of the show. If he’d pursued an investigation that led to a showdown in the end, Dexter fans would be having much happier water cooler conversations today. Oh, and killing Quinn would have been a very acceptable sacrifice to drive the final wedge between Dex and Deb.

We cared about Batista because he cared about everyone else. Dex once said that if he could be anyone, he’d want to be Batista. There’s talk of a spin-off. It should be Batista, now more jaded and suspicious of everyone. Save Masuka’s return for a Three’s Company reboot.

I hate to be this guy. I’m not a hater. I loved most of Dexter. When it was good, it was great! What did they do right?

1. “I’m going to kill you with that pen.” (Plus the saucy little hesitation before pressing the alarm and the instant switch to “He tried to kill me!”)

2. Batista’s reaction to watching the recording and seeing Dexter in a whole new light. Excellent acting as always by David Zayas.

3. Jennifer Carpenter is a great actress. It’s hard to act drunk for a long time without looking silly. She did it. (Question: What does she say to Quinn just before she goes into surgery? We replayed that three times at increasing volumes and still couldn’t quite catch it. It was the worst sound work since we all came back from watching Brokeback Mountain to google what Heath Ledger’s last line was.)

4. Michael C. Hall. Excellent actor. Even in casual moments, there’s something lupine about his face. In his last look at the camera, he delivered. His best moment? There are many to choose from, but I’d go with the moment he discovers that’s not Miguel’s blood on the shirt and rams his hands through glass in a rage.

5. Charlotte Rampling is an excellent actor. I’d like to see her in more stuff. Is Bates Motel looking for a creepy neighbor lady to run against Norman’s mom on Town Council?

6. I watched the penultimate Breaking Bad immediately after watching Dexter. That flushed some of the gunk out. That’s not something Dexter got right. In fact, they went up against the Emmys, but it was fortuitous.

Filed under: reviews, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

Writers, Writing and When to Swear

TPOD 0420 2

Apocalypse Art for This Plague of Days by Kit Foster of KitFosterDesign.com

As I work on This Plague of Days revisions, there’s a big difference: This is the first of my books my 13-year-old daughter is allowed to read. No one is swearing in TPOD and any sex is PG-13, at most. Sometimes I think this serial (to be released at the end of May) could be suitable for Young Adult. However, I’m also not pulling back on elements of horror that range from Hitchcockian allusion (The Birds) to classic horror (a gross-out or three). It’s a post-apocalyptic world and things aren’t pretty. 

Crass Commercial Considerations

A cross-genre flurry about  society's collapse under the crush of the Sutr Virus combined with a boy's love for odd words, Latin dictionaries and his father.

A cross-genre flurry about society’s collapse under the crush of the Sutr Virus combined with a boy’s love for odd words, Latin dictionaries and his father.

I’ll admit it: I want This Plague of Days to sell to a wide audience. I want it to go huge! Multiple translations and audiobooks and mass consumption. I want this serial to be made into a movie or a franchise with TPOD lunch boxes and T-shirts at conventions. I don’t want to return to a day job and a very popular serial without cursing will help me toward that goal. I watched an interview with director Kevin Smith recently in which he breaks down the movie market. The same principles apply to us: R sells less than PG-13. Soften the blow. Make more money.

Yes, I know Fifty Shades of Gray is bondage porn that makes a ton of money off a wide audience. However, this isn’t that. This Plague of Days is about an autistic boy who is a selective mute. A plague spreads across the earth and as the mayhem goes up, society spirals down. Bad things happen. However, the story revolves around the boy and, though it’s third-person limited omniscient, much of it unfolds through the boy’s filter. His special interest is English dictionaries and Latin phrases. Nothing is lost if I don’t make TPOD a cursefest and I’ll gain more readers.

The Irony I Frankly Don’t Understand

Many people are comfortable with just about any depiction of violence but get squeamish about certain words and sex. We’re downright weird about cursing. It’s in mainstream media and on any school playground, but in print, daily newspapers put in coy asterisks like this: f***. As if our brains don’t just fill in the word automatically. Swearing is ingrained in everyday conversations, but we pretend it’s not.

Watching a show like Dexter on a non-Showtime channel, censors ensure the dialogue sounds silly. “Mothertruckers?” Really? (The practice was played to great comedic effect when, in the latest Spider-Man movie incarnation, our beloved hero blurts, “Mother Hubbard!“)

Meanwhile, I get queasy about certain entertainment that is considered mainstream even though it’s extremely violent. I’ll never see Jodi Foster in The Accused and I refuse to watch A Time to Kill. Frank depictions of sexual assault and child rape are not something I want to

My luckless hit man is a funny guy in big trouble.

My luckless hit man is a funny guy in big trouble.

see. I can’t watch CSI or its many iterations. That whole Special Victims Unit thing feels way too voyeuristic and definitely not for me. (I’m not campaigning for a cleansing, by the way. I don’t want art censored. What I don’t like, I don’t watch, read or listen to and that solves my problem nicely.)

Ever since I had kids, I’m generally more queasy about violence that’s too realistic. I’d rather keep my violence diet to thrillers like Bigger Than Jesus. Though there’s plenty of death and even allusions to Jesus’s abuse as a young teen, it’s treated carefully, not graphic, and balanced by the hero’s sense of humor. The funny makes the horrible feel safe, somehow. 

This Plague of Days’ post-apocayptic genre puts the story into a realm that isn’t ours…at least not quite yet. 

Sex and Curses Have Their Place: Serving the story

Jesus is resurrected in Chicago. Sex with the Queen of Giants. Violence with Very Bad Men.

Jesus is resurrected in Chicago. Sex with the Queen of Giants. Violence with Very Bad Men.

My crime novels are funny but still gritty and hardboiled. The swearing in the Hit Man Series is a need. It would have been unnatural to write workarounds for simple, salty language. Acting too coy would have drained too much realism away. 

As for sex, in Bigger Than Jesus, Jesus Diaz is constantly running for his life. The book plays out like a long chase scene. Beatings and murder don’t put the hero and heroine in the mood, even for a quickie. There is a great romantic love interest in Lily Vasquez, but her intimacy issues with the hit man aren’t about sex. Lily and Jesus’s drama deepens character and shows the impact of his awful history on his life. Through their interaction, the reader understands Jesus more and sees why he’s so screwed up (particularly about women). The reader ends up empathizing with a guy who kills for money. As for Higher Than Jesus, the sex scene with Willow Clemont and Jesus is both integral to the plot and erotic. Sex raises the stakes.

The Balance:

Despite any commercial considerations and the joy I feel at being able to show my daughter what I really do,

story has to come first.

Gee, I hope she likes it.

~ Chazz has new websites: CoolPeoplePodcast.com, onlysixseconds.wordpress.com, DecisionToChange.com. In the latest podcast at the author site, AllThatChazz.com, there’s some swearing (in a funny rant) and a fresh reading from Higher Than Jesus.

Filed under: book marketing, Genre, Horror, rules of writing, This Plague of Days, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

Stephen King's House in Bangor, Maine

Image via Wikipedia

Even when an author makes a choice that doesn’t sit well with the individual reader, when a book is written well, perceived flaws are easily forgiven. Dan Well’s debut novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a solid writer. From the first chapter, I knew I was going to like this book and I could see why his agent and publisher were grabbed immediately.

Wells has done his research so well, you’re convinced he’s been hanging out in mortuaries a long time. He details the embalming process is grisly, convincing detail. He’s acquainted himself well with how a sociopath thinks. I wish Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter books, understood serial killers so well. (While the Showtime series, Dexter, is superb, the books are get progressively worse.)

When Wells’s tale threatened to go off the rails for me, he kept me riveted with realistic detail. I’m not going to spoil the story for you. I will say that Wells makes a daring choice by sliding a gritty portrayal of a young sociopath into a supernatural story. Had he kept his horror altogether in reality, it would be In Cold Blood for the juvenile set. I got antsy about the supernatural turn the story took, but Wells controlled his story by going back to the realistic context.

Reality is what makes horror so effective. It’s viruses escaping from government labs. It’s the threats that lurk behind every corner which end at a police station, a hospital or a morgue. Think of Stephen King’s portrayal of big bad things happening in tiny, ordinary towns in Maine. What makes effective horror so effective is that it occurs in such ordinary contexts. That’s why Wells’s choice to opt for the supernatural is daring. Each time he went out to the edge of reality, he compensated by getting right back to a realistic context.

The flaws I mentioned? Near the end, vague explanations are made to police that are skimmed over. I’m not even clear what explanations were offered so alibis seemed underwritten. (If Wells had omitted that scene, the denouement would have been shorter, as well.) I didn’t buy that part and would have preferred that the police not be brought in at all. Unless you’re writing a police procedural, I find bringing police into thrillers is problematic. Generally, when the forces for order show up, they either chase the bad guys away and order comes closer to being restored. That’s why so many effective horror stories occur in remote places where the outside world is cut off, the bridge is out and civilian protagonists have to rely on their own wits and tendons. (In my own stories, cops are never a factor. Their role is to show up after all the real action is over. The people they tend to catch are standing over their spouse holding a butcher knife and covered in blood. In reality, there’s a lot less drama after the authorities get involved.) 

However, despite these quibbles, Wells ends his story perfectly. It could be the beginning of a series. The protagonist’s voice is so authentic, dangerous and vulnerable at the same time, I’m looking forward to reading more of Mr. Wells’s work.

Want to know more about the Dan Wells? Go to http://www.fearfulsymmetry.net/.

Filed under: book reviews, Horror, writing tips, , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

You can pick this ebook up for free today at this link: http://bit.ly/TheNightMan

For my author site and the Chazz network, click the blood spatter below.

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