PULP FICTION (the thing, not the movie–aka this):
What IS pulp fiction (the thing, not the movie)?
“Pulp”, as a genre, is characterized by what might be called “cheap thrills” found in the mass produced fiction magazines of the 30s and 40s: cheesy debonair heroes, dark sinister baddies, sexy girls, jarring plot twists, paper-thin fantastical settings, etc. Everything was over-the-top, larger than life, overdramatic, too big, too exciting, but only skin deep. There was a LOT of flair and little substance. While pulp magazines are long out of style, the genre lives on in platforms like B-movies.
The reason I wanted to talk about this genre is because people REALLY hate it! People think B-movies are just BAD movies!
And that’s KINDA true…?
What I mean to challenge is the idea that this genre is EMPTY and WORTHLESS, especially for writers.
My childhood consisted of watching every single movie made by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I LOVED these movies as a kid and as a teenager. Last night, I rewatched Jet Li’s “Fearless”.
Let’s just say… the movie had some dialogue issues:
And it was a bit… straightforward thematically:
And there may have been some misplaced humor:
Many of these kung fu movies were B-movies, but I LOVED them anyway. There are STILL a LOT of B-movies that I LOVE.
Big Trouble in Little China (at least a borderline B-movie) is one of my favorite movies of all time!
My FAVORITE comedy is still Shaolin Soccer!
The Duel is my hands down favorite “bad” movie!
And Tarantino–can’t forget him! His movies aren’t exactly pulp, but it was CLEARLY a HUGE influence!
Pulp fiction (the thing, not the movie) is admittedly BAD in glaringly obvious ways. But at the same time, I can’t deny my own ENJOYMENT of it. What’s more, and I think B-movie enthusiasts will agree, there is an X factor pulp fiction has that “normal” fiction just DOESN’T that makes it AWESOME (at times).
So here are my questions:
What’s going on with this genre?
What can we learn from it?
Why SHOULD we (as writers) learn from it?
I have SIX reasons:
1) Pulp creators are EXCITED about their work
SOME B-movies are made with the intention of being bad (e.g. Sharknado, Snakes on a Plane). Others are made because the creators LOVE the genre (e.g. Grindhouse).
When it’s the latter, you can FEEL the excitement (which is the case in ANY art). Sometimes it’s the writing: a sense of intent in the wording of many lines. Sometimes it’s the production: an attention to detail. Sometimes it’s pacing: the little extra moments in the big scenes where both the creator and the audience can savor what’s happening. Very often, it’s just a sense: everyone working on this project got a kick out of what they were doing.
As an outsider, I can’t REALLY know this, but I get the picture that pulp creators have a LOT more control over their projects in the B-movie industry than in Hollywood. I would also imagine that, being that B-movies are “B” movies, there’s less of the cutthroat ambition that stifles creativity for the purpose of “making it big”, and more of the raw passion to create that leads to GREAT art. (Even if that art is B-movies.)
While the excitement shining through in these movies REALLY be replicated, we can look at what DECISIONS that passion led to and learn WHY those choices made a difference.
2) Pulp creators take risks
Large sums of money are often THE roadblock for taking risks. For whatever reason, economic or psychological or delusional, Hollywood INSISTS on making the same bad formulaic movies every year.
These movies are given GIGANTIC budgets in order to NOT TAKE RISKS. And every year, there are those DOZEN movies no one really believed in, no one wanted to watch, and no one DID watch. Why? In order to NOT lose money!
Smaller productions will ALWAYS be willing to take more risks. This is partially because the WRONG risk won’t cause a huge loss, and partially because the RIGHT risk could lead to HUGE success.
If we want to learn MORE things that work and more things that don’t, Hollywood will prove terribly inefficient. Independent films and B-movies show us stories WAY different that we ever imagined and allow us to learn both from their successes and failures.
3) Pulp creators are UNREFINED
In any craft, you can learn a TON from all levels of craftsmen. Masters can teach you deeper insights you could not have reached on your own. Contemporaries can teach by example how to improve at your own level. Beginners can teach you to think outside the box in ways you had forgotten about by improving.
The last is the most interesting to me. Whatever level we’re at, some of the possibilities we dismiss in the creative process are based on a lack of skill in how to HANDLE those possibilities. We deem a choice “bad” because we don’t realize all the ways to make it “good.” Another way this happens is SCHOOLING–we’re TOLD certain directions are “inferior” when we’re simply not advanced enough to work with them yet.
While B-movie writers and directors are by no means “beginners”, they are unrefined. Depending on the creator, their goal often isn’t to become the next Scorcese or Spielberg. They never allowed themselves to be bound by conventional storytelling education. While this OFTEN results in pretty terrible creative choices, there WILL be wildly outside-the-box thinking mixed in as well. And no matter how far along we are, we can learn from that.
4) There are things in pulp you can’t find anywhere else
Pulp, if it can be called a single “genre”, is the only genre I’ve known of that CREATED new genres. Without pulp, there would be no science fiction, detective mysteries, or horror fiction, and probably no soap operas or action movies either. The low-budget, risk-taking platform allowed works as “out there” as, for example, Lovecraft to exist, which had NO place whatsoever in literature at that time.
But it’s MORE than just the weird and the strange that can found in pulp.
Some things NEED a less serious atmosphere in order to float in a story. Look no further than Pulp Fiction (the movie this time). Not any movie could have supported the scene where Bruce Willis is looking for a weapon, picks up a hammer, then finds a baseball bat, puts that aside when he finds the chainsaw, and finally opts for the samurai sword. (Pic is NOT the vid, but links to the vid:)
Or take the bigger budget action B-movies like Wolverine, where we see Wolverine launching himself from the exploding car to take down a helicopter.
These scenes are AWESOME. As a writer, these scenes teach you how to take things to the next level, even if you can’t EXACTLY replicate it in your own non-pulp fiction.
5) Bad can be BUILT UPON
Even though genres like science fiction were spawned from the pulp, don’t go looking through the magazines expecting to find more Dune’s and Foundation’s. True, there was the occasional Lovecraft and Bradbury, but most pulp stories were your average sub-par pulp. It was the people who read that pulp who saw the POTENTIAL in it who built a genre out of it.
Forgetting the big stuff like whole genres, there’s PLENTY of small stuff to be inspired by as well.
It’s hard not think “I could TOTALLY do better” when watching B-movies. Pulp fiction is GREAT hunting ground for unique ideas that aren’t quite there. Let these ideas roll around in your head until you figure out how YOU would like to see them done. Then do it: write YOUR better version of the story.
Writers never have to–and never really do–start from scratch. Everyone takes ideas that inspire them and changes them, combines them, reshapes them into what’s GREAT in their eyes. (As a matter of fact, I wrote a whole post about this here.)
6) People LIKE it
There are two reasons not to like a story:
1) It was done poorly.
2) It wasn’t for me.
Only the first can be accurately labeled “BAD” fiction.
Pulp gets a lot of flak for being “bad”, but often times, it does EXACTLY what it sets out to do. It’s just a genre most people don’t like. But there ARE people who LOVE it. Since writers are entertainers, anything that is entertaining is an opportunity to learn. By looking at what people like, whatever the genre or the audience, we can learn more about how people work, which will lead to better and more compelling stories.
I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and marathon B-movies. They ARE hard to watch, at least most of the time. But the good ones are definitely worth it and the bad ones are good learning experiences. (E.g. how NOT to make a Tarantino film:)
This could count as Reason #7, but it’s more minor:
For years I’ve been trying to read Louis L’Amour, one of the most famous and prolific writers of Western dime novels. I’ve bought about a half a dozen of his books and I can NEVER get further than a few chapters.
While I know I’m missing out on the meat of what made L’Amour’s stories so beloved, I’ve already learned something:
The writing isn’t BAD, but it isn’t great either. It’s REALLY simple and REALLY sparse. It’s not interesting at all. And a little awkward at times. And this guy is STILL one of the best selling authors of all time.
Seeing where pulp succeeds IN SPITE of its faults really shows us what people are willing to overlook. Since ALL of us are our own worst critics, it’s enormously helpful to learn that–while “the bar” is a complex multifaceted concept–it IS lower than we think. We should just keep creating and putting our stuff out there, and eventually we’ll find our audience.
(So I was trying to find a picture for that sentence and THIS came up on Google Images. I’m familiar with the expression, but still–KINDA the wrong way to envision it…)