“Schlock” is one of those things that is easy to recognize, hard to define, and nearly impossible to demonstrate by example without getting into a shouting match.
However, let me open with a few observations. First, I do not use “schlock” as an insult. I consider it a style, not a level of quality. There is some very good schlock out there, in the sense that it is entertaining and well-crafted, just as there is much dreadful “high brow” literature.
The term began as a derisive term applied to low budget films, made for drive-in theaters originally, then the direct to cable TV and direct to video market. These films tended to be shot quickly, using poorly paid talent both in front of and behind the camera, working from scripts that were written just as quickly, using visual effects that were selected on the basis of economy.
And yet many of these movies have an enduring charm, continuing to be watched and enjoyed long after that year’s serious cinema has been forgotten. Reviewers of serious cinema like to label enduring schlock films “cult films”, but that term is less an explanation than a way to avoid thinking about it.
I believe that these so-called “cult films” endure not in spite of being low budget, but because of it. The limits of physical economy impose an economy of style which can–when combined with essential competence in the craft–result in a story that is stripped to its essentials. As such, I can point to some characteristics of the genre which can be applied to other forms of storytelling.
Start From The Payoff: The essence of schlock is “getting to the good part”. These films are usually designed around certain scenes that are expected to gather a positive audience response. The plots are then written backwards from there. Rather than asking, “what would happen if there was a spill of toxic waste?” and then researching the biochemistry of human beings and the protocols in place for transporting such waste, the schlock mindset begins with the desired scene–grotesque mutant cannibals overrunning a small town–and picks “toxic waste spill” as a possible mechanism for getting there.
Use What’s Available: Locations for schlock films are usually existing structures that happen to be available to the filmmakers. Got a cousin who manages a hair salon and the owner says we can use it if we pay for cleanup and repairs after shooting? Great, our heroine is now a hair stylist.
Writers of fiction should take this lesson to heart. There’s a reason why Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was set primarily in a high school–King was working as a high school teacher at the time. John Grisham wrote stories about lawyers. Michael Crichton wrote stories about doctors. The hero of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series was in IT support because Charles Stross worked in IT support while he was writing it.
“Write what you know” doesn’t mean “Don’t write anything you haven’t experienced directly”–there’s always a place for research–it means “Use what you do know to make the parts that you have to research more real.”
Don’t Waste Time: Every scene in a low budget film has to justify its cost. In filmmaking time is money. In writing pages have to be paid for with the reader’s attention and if you ask for too much without giving enough back your reader is going to walk away from the deal. The question to ask of a scene is not if it is well written, but does it need to be there? Does it keep the story moving or is there just because you wanted to write it? Too many good scenes that don’t advance the plot can kill a story just as thoroughly as poorly written scenes.
Don’t Pretend To Be Something You’re Not And Don’t Apologize For What You Are: As I said above, I don’t use “schlock” as a pejorative. It’s a descriptive term, and often it describes exactly what I am looking for. It’s not to everyone’s taste, granted, but judging from the number of companies in the business of selling DVD transfers of old direct-to-video movies there is quite a market. Stories that are honest will always appeal to someone–maybe not a lot of people, but if you want to tell it somebody is going to want to read it. There are unscrupulous producers who release crap that is designed to look enough like the latest blockbuster to fool people into buying it by mistake. Don’t be that guy–let your readers know exactly what you are offering and make your sales honestly.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Producers of Serious Cinema can delude themselves that their work is Important and World-Changing. Schlock-makers don’t run that risk. They know that they are in the Fun Business. Sure, some folks have a pretty odd definition of “fun” (don’t look at me like that) but the end result is entertainment. I give you money and you show me a good time. Smiles all around. If we’re all having fun then nobody is going to get too stressed about the occasional shadow of a boom mike or flubbed line. Don’t expect perfection from yourself, and don’t sweat the customers who expect it from you–those aren’t schlock people. They can go back to their Criterion Edition of Winter Light.
The rest of us are here to party.