What we can learn from The Onion’s interview with God

Of all the challenges that writers face in our craft, there’s one that sounds easy, but is anything but: How do you portray God? How do you put a face and a voice to The Creator Of Everything, especially when some ordinary person meets God. Let’s see how The Onion interprets such a meeting between us and our Creator:

Uhmm… Well, that was… something. Let’s dissect it and see what we can learn from one of The Onion’s most memorable videos.

Consider doing a shocking swerve

What’s so memorable about the video is that it starts off so innocently, complete with a dignified title screen and quiet piano music. We’re expecting a humanoid being to sit down before the interviewer (let’s name him Ted), and talk in a powerful, but gentle voice.

Then, seconds later, BAM, here comes an inter-dimensional being to take Ted on a fun adventure into madness.

As I noted in my critique of ‘Every 90’s commercial ever’, this kind of swerve is great for comedy, because luring our audience into expecting one thing, only to unexpectedly give them something else throws them off their feet, grabbing their interest as they try to make sense of what’s going on.

Consider having an encounter with the divine be pants-wettingly incomprehensible

When you imagine what God looks like, I’m betting the first things that comes to mind are either an old man in a white robe or a very bright light. What The Onion’s video does very well is portraying God more as a force of nature that is beyond anything we can make sense of.

For writers, try embracing that idea: Make your deity something beyond our comprehension. Make it so that even if your deity is benevolent, your character/s are so terrified that all they want to do is dive under the covers and cry for mommy to save them from this incomprehensible being who could destroy them in a nanosecond. By portraying a deity is an impersonal, incomprehensible being, you show your audience that you’re not going to be following traditions when it comes to portraying gods.

However, that impersonal power doesn’t have to be so terrifying: if your deity is benevolent, you can have them assist your character/s by using some of his/her/its power to stabilize their mind or counteract the effects of going mad. That shows that, despite being so far beyond its creations, your deity does care about them, and won’t just sit around passively while they go mad in its presence. Of course, if your deity doesn’t care, or is evil… well, helping your characters won’t be an issue.

Consider leaving it ambiguous if an encountered deity is malevolent or benevolent

While most people would assume that God is benevolent (or, at least, favorable to us mortals), we obviously can’t know for sure (assuming that God even exists). The Onion’s video, instead of portraying God as a beautiful, holy, benevolent being who loves us beyond all measure, goes for portraying God as a purple angel/skeleton thing that reduces Ted to a state of both sheer terror and unmatched ecstasy. We don’t know if God in the video is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.

On the malevolent side, God turns into a hideous skeleton, makes Ted seemingly go mad with fear, and at one point seems to suck something out of his mouth. But on the benevolent side, God did show up for the interview, apparently grants Ted ultimate understanding about everything, and creates a beautiful tree after the interview is over, Either way, though, we don’t know if The Onion’s God is friendly, ticked off, or just messing around (or, as one Youtube user suggested, He’s just saying, ‘Thanks for having me’).

One pleasure of writing a god in our stories is the possibly of creating a being who is so removed from our notions of good and evil that its mortality is impossible to understand, similar to how ants, insects, and other small animals can’t possibly comprehend our own actions or the reasoning behind them. That opens up tremendous opportunities to explore morality, how it changes from culture to culture, or even if there is such a thing as absolute good and evil, or if it’s just something humanity has come up with. But there’s also another bonus to making your god morally ambiguous: When we can understand how a deity thinks, that god’s power and majesty is reduced. But when there’s a deity that we cannot understand in any way, it remains a mysterious, terrifying, and beautiful enigma. It’s the ultimate unknown, and leaves the door wide open for stories about characters trying to understand it.

The Takeaway

When writing about God (or a god), surprise your audience by portraying God not as a purely benevolent, humanoid being, but as something that can drive you mad trying to comprehend or understand, even if He/She/It is benevolent. Add more complexity by not showing if your god is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.

What we can learn from: ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’

Halloween’s only a week away, and the internet is in full swing with all sorts of Halloween-themed posts, sites, and spooky sights to celebrate the season. But you know what? Let’s take a break from Halloween horrors and take a fun-filled trip back to the 90’s!

Umm… yeah.

Aside from the totally radical 90’s attitude (oh, those bright colors! The VHS scratch marks! The guitar music!), this charmingly gruesome commercial features a few treats for writers digging into it:

When doing a period piece, consider embracing cliches and stereotypes

What do you think of when you imagine the past several decades? Rock and roll music, drive-ins, and cheesy sci-fi B movies of the 50’s? The garishly bright colors, disco, outrageous hairdos, and shag carpeting of the 70’s? Or how about totally radical hipsters getting around on skateboards and surfboards while playing Nintendo 64 and watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the 90’s? While there was always more going on in those eras, embracing these stereotypes can work to our advantage when doing stories that don’t rely on historical accuracy: You can play around with these elements and exaggerate them, playing up the nostalgia factor for all its worth, bringing a smile to members of your audience who grew up in that era (and there’s nothing wrong with a little fun-spirited nostalgia every now and then).

If you’re doing a horror piece, consider starting off with ridiculously happy material before bringing the horror

What makes ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’ so memorable is that there’s no foreshadowing of its sudden swerve into horror territory. We’re sucked into this charming, goofy commercial of cliched 90’s kids heading out to the park to play football with a big name star (because that’s what every kid in the 90’s did) after drinking some totally awesome Capri-Sun Liquid Slam, only to be suddenly assaulted by a horrid, ‘Thing’ like abomination that proceeds to melt a kid’s face off.

Yikes!

In our own works, a sudden, unexpected swerve is guaranteed to get the audience’s attention because they’re not prepared for it. Such a swerve can work in blending different genres (horror to comedy, sci-fi to western, etc.) but going from comedy to horror may be one of the most effective because the audience will want to see how these happy characters deal with horrors that want to kill them in blood-chilling ways. Another great example of this is the opening to ‘Ghost Ship’ which, while not comedic, was still goofy with it’s family-friendly facade.

Consider having the comic relief/role model character be surprisingly effective at fighting

If there’s one thing more unexpected than seeing three children morph into an eldritch abomination, it’s seeing a professional football player yank a flamethrower out of nowhere and incinerate the beast while screaming for it to die.

In our own works, having role models/comic relief characters suddenly man up and take on monsters can be a great source of comedy (if it turns out they have no fighting skills at all and die almost instantly) and/or awesomeness. In real life, we love seeing a random stranger embracing their inner hero and saving the day when everyone is panicking, and the same runs true for fiction, especially if they’re larger than life characters like professional sports players who have never fought in their life.

Turning the comedic/role model characters into warriors also has the advantage of making them into the underdog: someone who’s phenomenally skilled at one thing, and then being thrust into a role they have no skill or talent in (You’ll also get comedy bonus points if they yank out a powerful weapon out of nowhere).

Consider throwing in product placement that makes everyone unrealistically happy, no matter the situation

How would you feel if you saw your friends be devoured/melted by an existential horror from beyond the stars? Shell-shocked, most likely, with a hearty dose of PTSD. In real life, such a catastrophe would take years of therapy to get over, but in commercial land, all you need to cheer someone up is give them some branded junk food.

Considering how short they are, commercials need to show you why using their product is a good thing, so it’s expected that eating junk snack food will make anyone in commercial land feel great. But why not try using that for comedic effect in in your own works? If you’re doing a comedy, have your characters recover from any experience, no matter how traumatic, by eating any manner of junk food: Someone lost a friend to rampaging dinosaurs? No problem! Your home planet just got blown up and everyone you know and love is dead? A few stuffed pizza pockets will take care of that! Died and ended up Hell for all eternity? Not to worry! A few microwavable tacos will have you dancing and singing your cares away!

Consider bringing the monster back at the last second, even if its been killed

Yes, it’s cliched, but bringing back a monster at the last second for one last jump scare is always effective, provided its appearance is pulled off well. Here, it comes in the form of another unexpected swerve, as the audience is expecting more jokes related to pizza pigskins, making the kid-monster’s appearance all the more unexpected.

Consider (very carefully) killing off a kid in your horror story

Aside from the sudden appearance of the Capri-sun Liquid Slam monster, what’s the one element of this commercial that sticks with you after you’ve seen it? I’d guess it’s that one of the innocent kids playing football ends up dead after having his face melted off. It’s arguably the one element that makes this video so memorable; if he had survived, or everyone had lived, the video wouldn’t have had the same impact.

While horror movies can get pretty bloody, there’s an unwritten rule that kids don’t die; breaking that rule tells your audience that you’re not fooling around, and can make for shocking moments that stick with the audience long after the story is over. Still, be cautious when killing children, especially in a comedy. It’s a very fine line between shocking and sickening.

The Takeaway

When doing a period piece, don’t be afraid to use stereotypes and cliches for comedic effect, and try using a comedic opening before starting your horror story so as to draw your audience in. When the carnage begins, considering killing off a child to show you mean business, while having your comic relief character be revealed to be a surprisingly good fighter, and then have everyone be cure of their depressions and trauma by enjoying blatant product placement before the monster unexpectedly returns.

BONUS

Just for fun, here’s some of the commercials being parodied here. I still remember seeing these, too!