For those of you who have read The Serpent’s Eye it will be no surprise to discover that I am a big fan of the found-footage style. But I’m not one of those fans who seeks out examples of the thing they love, no matter the quality. No, I’m one of those fans who has high standards and wants to see the thing he loves handled well. And, like so many tropes in fiction, its easy to get lazy and fall into the pitfalls that await those who don’t try hard enough.
Found-footage is a very effective way to set out a horror story. There isn’t really a simpler way of framing the “this really happened” scenario. But, as with many things, people mistake simple for easy and that they don’t need to put as much effort into it. And through that laziness they miss the one cardinal rule you must follow when you set your story using found-footage.
The reader needs to be able to answer this question: Why and how was the footage recorded.
This is fundamental because without it the entire premise has no basis. If you cannot answer this question without more than a minimal suspension of disbelief then your story will lack plausibility. All fiction needs to the reader to ignore a few points of reality, but that is especially important in horror as one of the main tenants is that you cannot scare a reader who cannot imagine that everything they are reading could plausibly happen.
The one thing that was always at the forefront of my mind while I was writing The Serpent’s Eye was keeping up a believable reason for the character to keep writing.It was easy to set up the principle of the journal he was keeping to take notes for his work, but why would he continue? What were the reasons for the parts he included, and for the parts he didn’t? How could I keep the tension growing and the right elements of the story on the page without making it feel forced?
To offer you an example of how this can be handled badly, I offer up a film rather than a book. The movie Cloverfield has a brilliant concept; a Godzilla movie told from the point of view of one of the crowd. The story is shown from the point of view of a group of friends who were filming a birthday party when the monster attacks. The fact that they continue filming as this happens makes sense. In today’s society we can easily believe that people would film an unusual occurrence without thinking.
But that plausibility quickly fades. As the film continues, the characters are put in situations where the fact that they continue filming becomes less and less believable. This includes a section where they climb a collapsed skyscraper. There is no need or reason offered for them to carry on recording. And once you hit the point where you can no longer believe what is happing in the story it loses all power to affect you. And above that, it’s lazy.
If you are looking to write something in the found-footage style, then please remember that there are no plot-points, styles or tropes that you can use that will work without effort. The effect of the found-footage trope may be simple, but that does not mean it’s easy.
Nothing leads to ‘lazy’ faster than ‘easy’.