On this episode, we are discussing the black comedy Parasite. And then we’ll end with a critique of one lucky author’s query.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! The Kim family lives in a basement apartment and struggles to keep food on the table. They take on odd jobs for cash like folding pizza boxes, and they rely on unprotected wi-fi networks and street-cleaning pesticides to keep their home insect free. The son is given a scholar’s stone by a friend, as well as a recommendation for a tutoring job with a wealthy family. He and his sister fake credentials for the job, and it starts this long-con where each member of the Kim family works their way into the Park family one-by-one.The son starts with the job as an English tutor. The daughter gets a job as an art-therapy teacher. The Kims have the Park’s chauffeur removed so the dad can take his place. Then they do the same with the housekeeper, and the mom takes her place. Once the entire family is employed in the Park household, the Kims start to take on more and more of a fabricated identity of wealth. They take the Parks’ home as their own while they’re away… and then there’s this twist that I never expected. The housekeeper shows up and says she forgot something in the basement, and it turns out to be her husband, who’s been living here without the Parks’ knowledge to hide from loan sharks. She begs the Kims to let him keep living there, and they refuse and also accidentally let on about their con. As she threatens to reveal them and a fight breaks out, a rainstorm brings the Park family home. The Kims think they’ve gotten everything under control, but when they return the next day, they find the old housekeeper dead and her husband gets out and attacks them. Everything breaks into turmoil as the old housekeeper’s husband kills the daughter and the dad kinda loses it and kills Mr. Park. The mother and son are convicted of fraud and put on probation, but the dad has disappeared. It turns out he made it into the bunker and is now trapped like the old housekeeper’s husband, and when the son realizes, he vows to make enough money to buy the house himself to free his father.
Jeni: Carly, what did you think of the movie?
Carly: I loved it! First of all, I know I say this everytime, but the cinematography was gorgeous. And seriously, I want that house, hidden bunker included. And I loved how real the characters were. I totally know those parents that think their child is a prodigy, but really the kid is just out of control. The family that is all about status but thinks they are close with their staff. And then we’ve got the Kim family. Their interactions and personalities are so real and interesting. I loved the humor of this movie, but I’m a sucker for black comedies. It was so wry and funny and all about the dark, dry delivery. For such a dark movie with a dark ambience, I was cracking up at times. And the way the sets and styles of each character really showed who they were, it was just masterful. What did you think?
Jeni: I am pretty sure I literally gasped when I saw the housekeeper’s husband living in the basement and then laughed at myself. I have to say it takes a lot to surprise me in a movie, but that big twist really was a shock. It was my favorite kind of thing where I felt like the housekeeper was a little off but definitely didn’t expect something like that. I wanted to talk a bit about black comedy and what that is, what distinguishes it as a genre, and why it works for this movie. Black comedy centers around dark humor, even gallows humor, and often focuses on taboo subjects. In the purest definition of the word, comedies are supposed to have happy endings, but dark or black comedies often don’t. This one definitely doesn’t! In the case of this movie, the writers use that dark humor to explore class discrimination and the effects of greed on society, and it allowed them to use this sort of absurdity to highlight some very real concerns. It shows human behavior through this lens of the ridiculous, but honestly, it’s not really all that unbelievable. There’s this really well-done parallel between the old housekeeper and her husband and the Kim family, seeing how they both took advantage of this rich family, but the Parks treat everyone like they’re inferior so it’s hard to feel bad for them. I think that is really what I loved most about it. What did the movie do well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Basically everything you just said! It played really well with viewer expectations. So in this case we are going to discuss reader expectations, because books. You want to surprise your readers. Why? Because you want to keep them entertained. But surprising readers is… surprisingly hard. There are millions of books out there and reinventing them never quite works. You need to give readers what they expect, while twisting it into something new to delight them. I know that sounds so complicated, but it can be easier than you think. It’s all about striking a balance between comfort and surprise. Make your readers feel safe, but then spin it in a why that makes them surprisingly uncomfortable. Find a way to turn left when they expect you to turn right, but stay on the road, don’t go off-roading. In this movie we are lulled into a sense of thinking we know where and when it will twist, but then it twists in a different way than we expected.
Jeni: Right. So playing with reader expectations in a book is tricky. Publishers and agents always say “we want something fresh,” but it seems like that’s still within reason, aka, if it’s too far outside the box, they don’t know how to market it. So it’s this balance of feeling familiar enough that readers have some idea what they’re getting themselves into but then switching some things up so it’s not totally predictable. Because predictability isn’t a great trait in a story. It can even push into cliches and stereotypes if you aren’t conscious of it. But when you think carefully about your reader’s expectations, you can use that intentionally. It’s not just about surprises like this one. It’s also about suspense. So, for example, when the old housekeeper asks if they want to come in the basement with her, you suspect something is going to happen. Like, nothing good ever happens in basements in movies, right? That’s using this expectation that we have as viewers, based on our own experiences with creepy basements and this understanding we have from watching lots of movies and reading lots of books where bad stuff happens to the characters once they get in the basement. If nothing else, basements are where we hide things away, tuck things out of sight, so we get this sense of there being secrets and who-knows-what in there.
Carly: Yes exactly! Like you said earlier, I was really surprised by the twist, and I even had heard that there was a massive twist, so I was mildly prepared. I assumed there would be something going on with the old housekeeper, but I never once thought she was hiding her husband in the basement. We are all prepared to go into the basement and have her attack them, or have her grab some blackmailing evidence against the Parks. But instead, her husband is hiding there. The only clue we got to that was that she “ate enough for two people” but even then, she tells us that that wasn’t even a clue, she paid for his meals herself. And then we get this crazy vaudevillian scene of everyone running around, trying to get the phone with the evidence that the Kims are related. And the scene continues when the Parks are about to arrive home. It is this mix of slapstick style antics and sheer brutality as they give the old housekeeper a deadly concussion. It takes what you expect of slapstick comedies and shows you the real brutality simmering beneath it. Then in the end, we’ve seen the Parks criticize Ki-taek for his smell a few times. It is usually presented comically, or a little cruelly. But then in the end, all it takes when his entire family has been attacked, is for the Parks to scrunch their noses for Ki-taek to snap and kill the father. The chaos of that moment turns what could’ve again been a slapstick moment, into something darker and more sinister. It grapples with classism and heartache. This movie constantly oscillates between the comical and the suspenseful, and merging those to genres gives us something unexpected and new.
Jeni: Totally. I love when movies have twists. For someone who takes in a lot of storytelling in its various forms, it can be hard to be truly surprised by a twist in a book. But even when you aren’t surprised, it’s still fun to see how the author creates something new from a lot of old tropes. Because that’s really what we are talking about here. I think trope has become kind of a bad word in writing circles, but it doesn’t have to be. A trope is really just a commonly used device, theme, or motif. So every story uses tropes, whether it’s a movie, TV show, book, play, video game, whatever. It only becomes problematic when the writer relies on cliches and stereotypes instead of using those tropes to create something new. This goes back to what I was saying about knowing what your reader will expect. Some common tropes are love triangles, The Chosen One, assembling the team, or even something as simple as the bad guys wear black. We, as readers and viewers, pick up on these tropes from an early age without even realizing so by the time we are strong readers, much less writing our own stories, so many tropes are already established in our consciousness. It can take a lot of work to start seeing those common elements as what they are. This is part of why it’s so important to read widely in your genre. But it’s also important to be aware of tropes in movies and TV because that is also at work in your reader’s mind, even though they probably aren’t aware of it. A great place to see some examples of tropes is TV Tropes.org. It’s literally a giant database of tropes with examples of how they’ve been used. When studying for your own writing, it can be really helpful to read specifically with tropes in mind. When you read a new book, try to identify where you think you know what’s going to happen in the story, whether that’s in the plot or something having to do with a facet of a character. Did the author do what you expected? Did they set it up like something familiar and then change something so it’s a little different than what you expected?
Carly: Yes! Tropes has become a dirty word in writing, but it really shouldn’t be. They are a tool like any other. And they can be used really well when you subvert them. The key to subverting tropes is to know them. So do your research as Jeni says. And then, find where you are building a trope and what can you do differently with it? Say you’ve created a Chosen One, maybe at the midpoint we discover they weren’t the Chosen One after all. How would that fallout change the story? Change the character? You’ve been building a love triangle around a central character, what if the other members of the triangle fall in love with each other instead? It’s all about recognizing the trope and then playing with the expectations tied to it. So like Jeni said earlier, we expect something bad to happen to the Kims in the basement if they follow her down, but we don’t expect to find someone down there that needs help. During the garden party massacre, we expect for the husband in the basement to avenge his wife’s death, but we don’t expect Ki-taek to then turn on the Park father. As you are working on your story, see what kind of groundwork you are laying, where would readers expect the story to go? How can you do it differently? But be careful to not do anything too out of left field. You want it to grow organically and still make sense, even if it wasn’t expected.
Jeni: So subverting tropes is awesome. But it can create problems too. One way it can cause issues in a story is when the way you subvert the trope doesn’t really have any impact. If you surprise the reader or make something happen that is different than what they expect, this will stand out to them. But if it has no impact in the story, it will feel unnecessary. For example, if you’re playing with gender stereotypes of a certain character but that doesn’t have any effect on the story, you’re missing an opportunity to deepen that fresh take on the trope, and that can leave the story feeling flat. I want to use a recent and controversial example so please don’t throw your phone or laptop across the room when I say these words: the final season of Game of Thrones. A lot of longtime fans of the show were really disappointed that the writers of the show chose to play with the viewer’s expectations by making the characters do things that seemed out of the boundaries they’d established for those characters. In other words, while no one knew what would happen at the end and the actual ending was the last thing anyone expected, it felt flat because the tropes were subverted in a way that felt unnecessary and didn’t really lead to anything surprising or new. It can also be problematic when changing up tropes misleads the reader. So if you start with a quirky love triangle and the reader thinks they’re getting into a rom com but then kill off both love interests and the story ends up actually being about grief, you’ve played with the reader’s expectations in a way that has a negative effect on them. So always think about the impact you want to have on your reader as you change up tropes. And use your beta readers and critique partners to make sure you’re having the intended impact. Remember, don’t ever be afraid to ask specific questions about feedback.
Carly: Yes, those are fantastic examples. You want to be intentional with your subversions. Push the boundaries in thoughtful ways that make sense and build on each other. One reason these twists work so well in the movie is that they all feel organic to the story. While surprising, none of it seems out of the ordinary, because the story builds to those plot points. Ki-taek has been insulted by the Parks for a long time. It isn’t out of the blue for him to lash out at such a chaotic moment. The movie is constantly oscillating between comedy and thriller, so we aren’t ever too caught out by a crazy tonal shift. Both tones have been threaded throughout every scene. They compliment each other without detracting from each other.
Jeni: This month our query is an adult psychological thriller with light supernatural elements. It’s basically about a woman who suspects her new love interest of being a murderer and that she’s being haunted by his victim. Lots of intense elements here definitely grab my interest.
Carly: This query is really intriguing. I think the main reason it is falling flat for me is that it is so short. We are getting a lot of the plot straight out of the gate. It should be building the suspense, not explaining everything we should expect. I want more of the character and more tension built. The first paragraph should focus on building the romance and how the stalker is invading her space. The second paragraph should lead to the twists and show how everything isn’t what she originally thought, without fully giving anything away. Basically, dig deeper into your main character and give us more of them. Build more suspense without giving away your big reveal. Hint at it.
Jeni: So, I have two main things. One is the overall structure. Good queries can be 350-450 words, so you have lots of room to add here. In addition, I’d like to see the first paragraph split into two. Start the new paragraph with “But when she discovers a news clipping…” Beyond that, I’d like to see a little more focus on the character’s emotional wound and how the events of the plot tie into that. In the first paragraph, tell us why she feels like this romance is going be good for her and show how she thinks it could “fix” her emotional wound. Then in the last paragraph of the summary, show what obstacles she will have to overcome and how that will force her to confront her own inner demons. That’s really what will give a sense of stakes to this story. This touching on the emotional wound in the first paragraph of the plot summary and then calling back to it in the final dilemma (aka “the MC has to decide X bad thing or Y face their inner demons or something terrible will happen”) is an essential part of a good query.