Dark Shadows shines a light on writing tips
We saw Dark Shadows last night. Oh my goodness. Michelle Pfeiffer was wonderful, the settings and particularly the porcelain/egg shell witch stuff were delightful, but over all: a train wreck. Still, in an effort to get my money’s worth, I came away with some notes, assembled quickly here (there are spoilers, but I don’t see how anything can spoil the movie more than watching it).
1. Pick you story.
Dark Shadows ran as a daily serial for how long? So lots of material to sift through. <I tried to watch the 1990s remake recently: it hasn’t travelled well.> What to include? How about not everything? Save the werewolf girl for later, or at least foreshadow her inner hairiness, for instance. No, when presented with so many story ideas, best to pick just one, and add a subplot or two, but make sure you have that narrative drive from beginning to end. So it might be a love story or a love gone wrong/revenge story; it might be a family drama; it might be a vampire trying to deal with society 200 years later; it might be how a vampire helps a boy and his dead mother find a happy ending. It’s probably not all of those things at once.
2. Pick your tone.
So many ways to approach such material… a once wealthy family brought under by a scheming, vengeful witch, and then along comes a vampire from the past to help put things right. Is this a comedy? A kitsch retro bit of fun pie? Is it a horror story, a melodrama, a thriller? Pick one, leaven it with another, and work it, baby. But don’t bounce between them willy nilly, and for pity’s sake don’t suck your few slightly funny gags dry. Alice Cooper’s a girl’s name. Oh my. A family that has the big balls. Oh dear.
3. Characterisation is key.
It’s about the people, innit. So you have a cool cast of characters, each with their own thang, and then you give a glimpse of each and forget about them. Instant or reincarnated love? Two people in one house who believe in ghosts? Two hundreds years of obsessive love? Hm, somewhere along the line, they need to meet. But most of all, perhaps, that hero needs to be heroic, not a cad; or if he is a cad, he needs to realise it. But our vampire hero treats the help wrong and, on this occasion, he picked the wrong gal to use and discard, and hell hath no fury, right? What exquisite blackmail it is to have to make love to the pretty witch — tell me again why she still loves the cad? As Depp’s Barnabas admits, he’s not a gentleman.
4. Story that works for a greater whole.
So you kill the psychologist and you catch the bad dad thieving and there will be ramifications. Won’t there? You kill a bunch of folks and there will be ramifications … won’t there? History repeats with the torch-wielding mob baying for your blood and — they go home when told to. No, when the hero suffers a setback, it has to have an impact. The worst thing happens and it means something, damnit; it doesn’t get swept under the carpet.
5. Make sure your theme is up to date.
So this is probably being overly harsh, but damn.. Dark Shadows seems to have embodied those far simpler times when those with money could get away with anything. Murder is fine as long as the family’s fortunes and social standing is upheld. The staff should know their place and even the most accomplished, self-made witch with 200 years of achievement under her cauldron just wants to be loved.
A case study of how to do it: after we got home, we had a palate-cleansing viewing of The Addams Family movie. Now that’s kooky.