Saturday, June 28

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Someone once said to me: The first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel.

I believe that.

Endings are important. If I like a book but hate the ending I probably won't read another book by the same author. 

How does one create an exciting, satisfying, ending?

Yesterday, as I worked on the ending for my WIP, I wondered: Is this any good? Is it interesting? Exciting? How can I tell? What makes an ending good? Bad? Indifferent?

So I did what I usually do at times like those, I went to my digital library (also known as the internet) and re-read Jim Butcher's essay, Story Climax. It's an informative, easy, read. And it's funny. (Sometimes I think humour is like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.)

Jim Butcher is a funny, brilliant and wildly successful author--a #1 New York Times bestseller--so I'm going to try and dip into his well of wisdom and talk about a few of his thoughts about what goes into creating an exciting, couldn't-stop-reading-if-you-wanted, ending.

What do readers want?

I think that the key to success in writing is to figure out what your readers want and give it to them. So, what do readers want? 

The ending should be vivid.

Jim Butcher writes that if you've gotten your readers emotionally invested in the story then, "when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can."

The ending should be satisfying.

Jim Butcher writes:

"By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

"You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room."

We can see that a lot is riding on writing a vivid, satisfying, exciting, climax. This just intensifies my need for an answer to the question: How does one go about doing that?!

1. A specific, concrete, event should mark the start of the climax.

It's all about dominos. 

About two-thirds of the way through a story, right after the great swampy middle, there's an event that is akin to the first domino dropping, an event that sets in motion a cascade of rising action that sweeps the reader inexorably on toward the conclusion of the story.

2. The conclusion, the climax, of a story has six parts.

Jim Butcher writes:

"The actual climax itself, the absolutely peak of it, though, is what I generally refer to as the Showdown or the Throwdown or the Beatdown, depending on my mood and testosterone levels at the moment. The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered.

"For THAT confrontation, there several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a Sequel [...]."

These are:

a. Isolation
b. Confrontation
c. Dark moment
d. Choice
e. Dramatic reversal
f. Resolution

Let's go over each of these in turn.

a. Isolation

At the end, the hero should meet the villain by himself without backup. Jim Butcher writes:

"At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That's why that character is the protagonist. Oh sure, there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader."

b. Confrontation

Your hero, your protagonist, should bring the fight to the antagonist. He or she confronts the Big Bad, the Nemesis. Butcher uses Inigo Montoya as an example: 

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Best. Scene. Ever!

c. Dark moment

As Butcher writes, the confrontation between hero and villain "Does Not Go Well." The hero finds out he's completely outclassed and, moreover, that what he thought was the worst possible outcome wasn't. The cost of losing is actually much, much, worse.

Jim Butcher doesn't use this name, but this beat has also been called "All hope is lost." He writes:

"In the recent Narnia movie, that moment was at the death of Aslan. The Great Lion is gone, the White Witch has made fashion accessories out of his mane, the bad,guys have them outnumbered and outgunned, and there's just no way to win the fight that's coming the next day--but the folk of Narnia need Peter to lead them."

d. Choice

Here's where Jim Butcher's books really shine (IMHO). It's all about choice. He writes:

"Your protagonist has to CHOOSE whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that Dark Moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be a BAD one. If it's an easy choice, there isn't any drama to it--no tension, no release for the reader."

The first time I read that I was thrown. Bad choice? What did Jim Butcher mean by that? Should my protagonist go to the dark side and start torturing kittens? 

No. Of course not. A bad choice is a choice that any rational person would consider crazy. Insane. Here's Butcher's example:

"'Use the Force, Luke,' urges ghost-Kenobi's voice. 'Let go, Luke!' Luke visibly makes a choice, turning off his targeting computer, putting his faith in the Force to make the shot that the whole galaxy is literally riding on, the way a Jedi should. He's alone, with the baddest guy in the movie hot on his tail, and even his friends are telling him he's nuts. 'His computer's off. Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?' 'Nothing!' 
says Luke. 'I'm all right!' Not ONLY is he about to get blown out of the air by Vader, but he might miss the shot, too. Luke is about to do something INSANE. He's about to sacrifice his life to take a literal shot in the dark."

Luke's choice wasn't a bad choice, it's the only choice that would have worked, but it seemed completely crazy, insane, to all his friends and allies.

By the way, here's where all that character development you've done comes in handy. Your readers need to know the hero well enough--their personality, their traits, their quirks--that taking the crazy high road is believable. At the end of Butcher's Dresden File books I often shake my head and think, "That's insane. That's so Harry." 

e. Dramatic reversal

When I pick up a new Dresden Files book I know one thing: Harry's going to wipe the floor with some bad guys and he's going to come out of it okay. (Yep, Ghost Story threw me for a bit of a loop.) So we know that the crazy thing the hero does--the bad/insane choice he makes--is going to pay off in the end.

You'd think that that certainty would leech the story of its suspense. You'd think the certainty would make the eventual rosy outcome less than satisfying. But it doesn't. Why? 

I think there are several things involved here. 

First, although we strongly suspect the hero is going to come out of this just fine no matter what risks he takes, others might not. 

Second, we don't know exactly how the hero will triumph. (Often there's a bit of mystery involved.)

Third, poetic justice. Jim Butcher writes:

"The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice."

Great storytelling is all about developing believable characters readers care deeply about, putting them in jeopardy and then, as in a magic trick, making it all work out in the end--or not.

f. Resolution

This is where everything gets wrapped up. Butcher writes:

"Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.

"My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, you heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!

"Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you'll ever write: T H E  E N D"

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to read Jim Butcher's articles over at if you haven't already. Not only is the advice sterling, but his articles are easy to read and delightfully funny.

Photo credit: "Falmouth" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, June 25

How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story

Choose Your Own Adventure stories seem to be making a modest comeback thanks to tablets and smart phones. Today I'd like to look at the structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure story and pass along a few tips about how to write one.

(By the way, I've added more information, detailed examples, etc., and turned this series of articles a book: How to Write a CYOA Story: The Story That's Also a Game!)

What is a choose-your-own-adventure story?

Choose your own adventure (CYOA) books started out, in the 80s and 90s, as "a series of children's gamebooks where each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character's actions and the plot's outcome." (Choose Your Own Adventure, Wikipedia)

For example, Kelly Armstrong, aided by Random House and Inklestudios, created Cainsville Files, an app that takes the reader through a mystery/adventure where the reader can choose her path and uncover clues leading up to a spine-chilling revelation. 

This morning I bought Armstrong's app and read/played through her story. It took me only an hour or so and I enjoyed myself enormously. I had planned on reading her book, Omens, at some point in the not too distant future, but I'm moving it up on my reading list. I'm interested in the town, Cainsville, and its strange inhabitants. I want to meet them again and learn more about both the town and the story universe.

CYOA stories, when configured as apps, have the advantage that it's possible to show simple animations and sounds. When I'm reading about a rainy night with lightning and thunder it's nice to hear the pitter-patter of raindrops and the slow roiling growl of the thunder. (Armstrong's app did not have this background augmentation.)

How to write your own choose-your-adventure story.

Just like putting together a regular story there's more than one way of going about it. That said, what follows are several tips from avid readers and writers of CYOA stories.


There are several programs that can help you keep your decision tree straight. If you're scratching your head wondering what I mean by "decision tree" here's an example taken from The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard.

A program I love and use often is SimpleMind+. It allows me to draw mind maps of all sorts. I can pick custom colors and outlines as well as leave copious notes.  

As far as writing a CYOA story goes, the best program I've looked at so far is Inklewriter over at Here's a YouTube video that provides a brief tutorial:

UPDATE: Inklewriter no longer converts your manuscript into the Kindle format.

Let's say you decide to take the plunge and write a CYOA story. How should you start? 

1. Sketch out the story

Write out a sketch of the story, a kind of zero draft, and then go back through it and break it into blocks. These blocks are linked together to form narrative chains. The number of levels a narrative chain has depends on how many blocks it has.

From what I've seen, most branching stories have a minimum of around 10 levels and a maximum of around 20. For example, the shortest branch in The Mystery of Chimney Rock had 9 levels and the longest 21.

What I'm calling a block of text could be either a scene, a sequel, or some kind of transition (for more on this see Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts). In a full CYOA there can be as many as 120 blocks of text. If each block is the length of an average page and contains, say, 250 words, then you'll have to write around 30,000 words. (That may seem like a lot, but it really isn't! The minimum length for a book is 50,000 words, but, depending on the genre, can be quite a bit more. Urban fantasy books, for example, are usually around 80,000 words long.)

Keep in mind that a reader wouldn't read all 120 blocks! Because of their choices, a reader would normally see only one block of text from each level. This means that each reading experience, each adventure, would be only 10 or 20 blocks long which comes out to between 2,500 and 5,000 words—the length of three blog articles! Though, that said, one of the fun things about CYOA stories is that readers can circle back creating a kind of time-warp.

Story blocks

Len Morse in Writing Tips how to Write a Choose your own Adventure Story suggests, for each block, trying to answer the following questions:

"Who has your hero met? Does your hero have any traveling companions? What is their relationship? (Friends, enemies, peripheral characters, pets?)

"What is your hero's inventory? Has your hero lost/gained an item? Is it needed to achieve the goal? (Food, clothing, money, weapons, climbing gear, a holy relic?)

"What special abilities or knowledge does your hero have? For how long? (Where is the hidden letter, who was in bed with whom, how to avoid a fight or pick a lock?)

"Has your hero actually achieved the goal? (Reached a destination, killed the enemy, won over the love interest, found the special item, rescued the prisoner?)"

2. Choose your story endings.

Morse mentions that there are five basic kinds of templates for endings:

a) The protagonist is captured.
b) The protagonist is killed.
c) The protagonist acquires treasure.
d) The protagonist finds love.
e) The protagonist fails in his/her quest.

There should be a handful of endings somewhere in the middle that cut the story short. The protagonist might die or just fail to achieve his/her goal. What this means for the reader is that they will need to go back to the last block/section and make a different decision the next time round.

Morse writes:

"[...] you might write five of each ending type, for a total of 25 endings. (It would behoove you to write less of the 'gets killed' endings. Readers hate that!) Also, there's nothing keeping you from combining your ending types (i.e. Maybe your hero gets the treasure, and then gets captured.)"

Also, keep in mind that, depending on the complexity of the story you want to tell, there may be more than one story thread.

For example, in Kelley Armstrong's book app, Cainsville Files, there was a main storyline—whether the protagonist, Jenn McCoy, will find out why her childhood sweetheart disappeared—and a secondary storyline that was a potential romance. You could fail to make a romantic connection, though, and this wouldn't affect (at least, not that I could tell) the main outcome.

Decide on your secondary characters

by Tom Gauld
There are going to be a number of characters in your story. You won't have all the characters I list, below, but you'll probably want two to four, depending on the length:
  • The protagonist's helper/best friend/buddy
  • The protagonist's mentor
  • The protagonist's sidekick. Often the sidekick is the same as the helper/best friend/buddy, but not always. This could be a secondary helper, perhaps even an animal, who keeps the hero company. For example, Minsc and Boo.
  • A wise old man/woman. This could take any number of forms, even that of an animal.
  • A Big Bad.
  • The Big Bad's helper/minion.
  • A red shirt.
  • Master page of character types.

Events: Kinds of deaths

If you're having a difficult time coming up with inspiration, here are a few possible ways to snuff out your protagonist (or any character): Various death tropes.

3. Throw in a subplot

This point isn't specifically about CYOA books, but a second plotline can add complexity to a story. In Kelley Armstrong's CYOA her subplot was a romance and I thought it worked quite well. 

Pros and Cons of writing a choose your own adventure story

  • A CYOA story can be a bit easier to write than an 80,000 word novella written in 3rd person with multiple point of view characters. As we've seen, a CYOA story can be a short as 30,000 words and has only one point of view—that of the reader.
  • A CYOA story can be a bit more difficult to write than a standard novel because, rather than writing one story, you're writing one story and all (or almost all) it's possible variations.
  • A CYOA story is written in the 2nd person. 
  • Pro: This is one of the few times this narrative viewpoint is used, and it can be used to great effect. Besides, it's good to try something new every so often!
  • Con: Many people don't like reading a narrative written in 2nd person (e.g.: You turn the corner. A hungry vampire crouches before you, fangs bared, poised to suck your blood!).
  • Often a CYOA story is told in the present tense. Some readers like stories told in the present tense while others loathe them with a red hot fiery passion.
  • Unless you're the Stephen Hawking of the writing world and can hold multiple branching outlines in your head, you're going to have to outline. That's a plus if you're used to outlining and have developed a method that works well for you, but a minus if you regard outlining as the literary equivalent of cleaning out a septic tank with your favorite toothbrush.

Whatever you decide to do, all the best! If you do write a CYOA story, I'd love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment or contact me directly.

Update (Oct 4, 2016): There were many things I didn't have time to write about in this article so I've turned it into a series (see the links below). I've also taken all this information, added more, and turned it all into a book: How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 2
How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 3: Keeping A Reader's Interest
How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure


2. Inklewriter. "inklewriter is a free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories. It’s perfect for writers who want to try out interactivity, but also for teachers and students looking to mix computer skills and creative writing." For $10 Inkle will convert your story into a file you can read on a kindle ereader.

3. Cainsville Files (app) by Kelly Armstrong.

4. Decision trees:

5. Articles about Choosing Your Own Adventure:

Also: How to write a gamebook part 1 - thinking of a plot (and then a few more plots)

Photo credit: "hunch" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, June 23

Ben Bova On Writing Science Fiction

Ben Bova On Writing Science Fiction

I knew I wanted to read it as soon as I saw the quotation Bova used to start off his book:
"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer."
-- Ernest Hemingway
Yes. That.

Hemingway was talking about stories in general. What is science fiction? What makes one book a work of science fiction and another not?

The science must be essential to the story.

Bova defines science fiction this way:
"Science fiction stories are those in which some aspect of future science or high technology is so integral to the story that, if you take away the science or technology, the story collapses."
He uses Mary Shelly's book "Frankenstein" as an example.  It passes the test because "Take the scientific element out of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel and what is left? A failed medical student and not much more."

What is unique to science fiction?

Science fiction has special requirements, special demands. Bova writes:
"Every good science fiction story must present to the reader a world that no one has ever seen before. You cannot take it for granted that the sky is blue, that chairs have legs, or that what goes up must come down. In a good science fiction story the writer is presenting a new world in a fresh universe. In addition to all the other things that a good story must accomplish, a good science fiction tale must present the ground rules and use them consistently without stopping the flow of the narrative."

Ben Bova's Tips For Bringing A Character--And A Story--To Life

Make the protagonist interesting

He (or she) doesn't have to be likeable, but it's difficult to make a character likeable if he (or she) isn't interesting.

Make the stakes both clear and dramatic

Make sure the problem the protagonist encounters is truly dire. If the protagonist doesn't solve the problem then his life should be dramatically affected for the worse. 

For example, if Luke Skywalker (Star Wars IV) didn't destroy the Death Star then he'd be dead, all his friends would be dead, and the resistance would be destroyed. 

Give the protagonist one or two great strengths and one obvious weakness.

For example, take the character of Ender from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Ender had both compassion and ruthlessness. Which trait was either a strength or a weakness depended on the context. Ender's challenge--one of them--was to strike a balance between the two.

I know this isn't science fiction, but I like using the character of Indiana Jones as an example. Indy was resourceful, that was his great strength. Also, he was fearless. His weakness was that he was too trusting, especially of attractive females. Another of his weaknesses, played for comic effect, was his fear of snakes. 

Give the protagonist a problem that preys upon their weakness.

Bova writes: 
"Once you have decided who your protagonist will be and you know his strengths and weaknesses, hit him where it hurts most! Develop an instinct for the jugular. Give your main character a problem that she cannot solve, and then make it as difficult as possible for her to struggle out of her dilemma."

Emotion A vs emotion B

Your protagonist should have an inward struggle. They should have two opposing goals. Bova uses Hamlet as an example. Hamlet struggled between the desire for revenge upon his uncle, Claudius, and the desire to do no wrong. He writes:
"I want to borrow a marvelous technique from William Foster-Harris, who was a fine teacher of writing at the University of Oklahoma. He hit upon the technique of visualizing story characters’ problems in the form of a simple equation: Emotion A vs. Emotion B. For example, you might depict Hamlet as a case of revenge vs. self-doubt. Think of the characters you have loved best in the stories you have read. Each of them was torn by conflicting emotions, from the Biblical patriarch Abraham’s obedience vs. love, when commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, to the greed vs. loyalty often displayed by my own quixotic character, Sam Gunn.

"Whenever you start to think about a character for a story, even a secondary character, try to sum up his or her essential characteristics in this simple formula. Don’t let the simplicity of this approach fool you. If you can’t capture a character by a straightforward emotion vs. emotion equation, then you haven’t thought out the character well enough to begin writing. Of course, for minor characters this isn’t necessary. But it certainly is vital for the protagonist, and it can be just as important for the secondary characters, too.

"With this approach, you begin to understand that the protagonist’s real problem is inside her head. The basic conflict of the story, the mainspring that drives it onward, is an emotional conflict inside the mind of the protagonist. The other conflicts in the story stem from this source [...]."
Ben Bova won the Hugo six times, wrote and published over 120 stories, was an editor over at Analog and was the editorial director at Omni.

I'll close with how Ben Bova defined a story:
"[...] every story is essentially the description of a character struggling to solve a problem."
So simple, so true, yet it is far from easy to create (or discover) stories that embody that principle.

Good writing!

Friday, June 20

Book Talk: Shifting Point of View

Book Talk: Shifting Point of View

Last night I finished "The Testament" by John Grisham. 

Changing POV within a story

Interesting book. It opens with a first person, present tense, account that is intimate and shocking. The story is told by a ridiculously wealthy man, Mr. Phelan, who is at the end of his life. His one overriding goal is that his heirs not get hold of his millions. No, scratch that. Billions.
"Down to the last day, even the last hour now. I'm an old man, lonely and unloved, sick and hurting and tired of living. I am ready for the hereafter; it has to be better than this."
The first person account lasts for the first two chapters, after that Grisham shifts to third person past tense. He couldn't have continued to tell the story in first person perspective because (spoiler alert) Mr. Phelan--the POV character--commits suicide.
"[...] I rise from my wheelchair. My legs are shaking. My heart is pounding. Just seconds now. Surely I'll be dead before I land.

“Hey!” someone shouts, Snead I think. But I'm moving away from them."
Still, it's unusual, shifting both tense and POV two chapters into a book, but I think it worked. I don't see how the story could have been told more effectively another way. The storyteller needed to build up some sort of reader identification for Mr. Phelan and I think that was the best way of doing it. Also, it was interesting. How many times do billionaires about to commit suicide talk to us frankly, truthfully, about their lives, their loves, their regrets?

I think the odd shift in POV and tense was done because all through the book Mr. Phelan's negative points, his many failures as a father, his philandering, his cruelty, are the focus of discussion. But for the purposes of the story, it's important that we, the reader, want the billionaire's last wishes honored even though he was a less than stellar human being. If we don't care about that, we won't care about the story.

Did the shift in POV work?

What do you think? Regardless of whether you've read "The Testament," what do you think about switching from first person to third person, or vice versa? If you read "The Testament," do you think it worked? Was it effective? Necessary? Or would it have been better to have maintained a uniform POV throughout?

Wednesday, June 18

Creating A Creative Outline

Today I'd like to talk about outlining. 

Outlining doesn't have to be mechanical.

From several discussions I've had about outlining with various writers I've come away with the idea that certain writers who are vigorously opposed to outlining see it as in some sense mechanical. I'd like to show that outlining doesn't have to be.

Each method of outlining is unique to the writer.

Before I start, though, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not suggesting anyone else use the same method as myself. Each story is different and I suspect that how each story is written differs as well. 

With this blog post I'm saying, "Hey, by the way, this is what I do" in the hope that some of you will, in the comments, share your own methods.

The Index Card Method

One of the reasons outlining works for me is that stories usually come in fits and starts. I'll get one piece one day, another the next, and usually these pieces don't fit perfectly. 

It helps to have a board where I can scribble down my thoughts on index cards and arrange them in terms of the story's chronology.[4] In my case, the board is several sheets of magnetized metal hanging on the wall, but I could do this on a piece of paper or a file on my computer.

Step One: Write the events of the story down in no regard for order.

Often I'll know that something--a particular event--occurs but won't know if it occurs in the beginning, middle or end of the story. I won't know why it occurred or who it will effect.

That's okay. I write the event down. At first I usually write these down in my journal and then, when my journal is getting full, I'll comb through it and transfer the events onto index cards which I then place on my Lost Scene board. 

Each of these cards ... I think of it like catching the tip of a dragon's tail. Each one could lead me to a different story; they are entry points; they are day-dreaming aids. 

As soon as I have enough cards on my 'Lost Scenes' board I start putting them on my story boards. Then I play. I play with the order, I play with writing new scenes. But most of all I think about the core of the story and dream. Perhaps I'll write new scenes in my journal and start the process again.

Step Two: Give each character a card.

I say this is step two, but I do it at the same time as step one: I jot down the character's name and everything I know about them. Sometimes this uses up several cards.

Step Three: Write down clues.

Occasionally I want to put in hints at what is to come, or perhaps I've included a mystery, so must leave a smattering of clues for the reader. I'll write one clue per index card. Later on I'll pin each clue to the scene where I introduce it.

Step four: Write a scene or write an interview with one or more of the characters.

As soon as I have a clear idea of a few of the scenes I want to have in the book, as soon as I have some sort of fledging sense of my protagonist, I'll start to write. 

What I write is different for each story. Sometimes I'll do a character interview, sometimes I'll write a piece of flash fiction featuring my protagonist (or my antagonist or both). 

I need to connect with the characters and the events of the story (I need to break into the story) as soon as possible so that I know that what I'm working on isn't just smoke and mirrors. 

For me the bottom line is: if I can't connect to the character's there is no story.

Step Five: When the story begins to coalesce I look for pivotal scenes.

At some point the story will more or less coalesce and I'll have grasped certain big events--pivotal events--that change the characters lives. These events help me find the joints of the story.

In case you're wondering, I find the joints of the story by thinking of the movements, the beats, in the classic three act structure. Keep in mind, though, that these points aren't intended to be a straightjacket. I don't feel as though I have to shoe-horn my story into any particular structure. 

That said, thinking about the three act structure often helps me find the beating heart of my story.

Step Six: Plan the pivotal scenes.

Deborah Chester just published two terrific blog posts (Scene Check, Part 1; Scene Check: Part Who) where she lists some of the many questions writers can use to plan a scene:

- Who is the viewpoint character and what is their objective?
- What is the viewpoint character's motivation?
- What is at stake?
- What will the protagonist do to achieve their goal and what will the antagonist do to counter it?
- Why is this event important to the story?
- When will the scene's outcome affect events down the line?

Once I answer a few of these questions for each of my pivotal scenes my mind will be awash in ideas for intervening scenes, scenes which lead up to the big events. 

Step Seven: Keep doing Step Six.

For each new scene I tack up on my board I plan it out in the same way I planned out the pivotal scenes, though perhaps in less detail.

Step Eight: Don't be afraid to reorder, delete or add scenes.

A story doesn't live in index cards (or in computer files or on pages of looseleaf), a story is a living thing that resides within the storyteller. 

Since a story is a living, breathing, growing thing it's inevitable that it will grow and change and transform. When this happens, even though it can be painful, index cards have to be taken down and stored in my RIP pile and new ones created. 

Step Nine: Write an outline.

At some point I'll feel the story is just about there, just about right, and I'll write a hurried outline.

Step Ten: Redo the cards.

Inevitably, whenever I write an outline, the story will change a bit and I'll go back to the cards and shift things around, keeping an eye on whether the clues that I've scattered through the story need to be changed, moved or deleted.

Step Eleven: Type the cards into a word processor.

At this point I'll type all the cards on my story boards into Scrivener and, in so doing, write a detailed summary of the novel. I'll print this out and keep it handy. 

Step Twelve: Don't hesitate to change the outline.

For me, an outline is important because at some point when I'm writing I'll get lost and wonder: Okay, where am I? What happens now?

If I have an outline I look at it and see what I'd wanted to do originally. I don't have to do that, but often I'll look at it and think, "Oh yes, I remember!" and off I go. But I could just as easily change the outline.

I like how Mary Robinette Kowal describes the outline as a roadmap. When I take a roadtrip I like to have a destination and I like to know where I'm going to stop along the way. That way I know (roughly) how much gas I'll have to buy, I can book a hotel to sleep in, I can search for interesting spots along the way I might like to visit.

Having a roadmap doesn't mean I can't change my destination mid-trip. But if I do, and I have a roadmap, it'll be easier to calculate how much more (or less) gas I'll need, see what spots I can stop off along the way, and so on.

Final thoughts.

Some writers get hold of a story through prose. Other writers get hold of a story through daydreams. Other writers ... well, I suspect that the number of ways to get hold of a story--to catch a dragon by the tail--are as numerous as writers.

The important thing is to catch the dragon--to write the story--before it eats you.


1. Chuck Wendig's blog is wonderful--plenty of pithy tips about writing, plenty of encouragement. (But be warned, his blog is NSFW.) Here are two articles CW wrote about outlining:

2. Mary Robinette Kowal on outlining:

3. Lee Goldberg on outlining:

4. I use index cards but you can use anything. Strips of paper, a file on your computer, pages in a binder. Use whatever method strikes your fancy.

Photo credit: "Creative Outlining" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Monday, June 16

8 Elements Of A Gripping Tale

8 Elements Of A Gripping Tale

This is a question I've asked a time or three: How does a writer keep readers turning the page?

1. Tell a gripping tale.

The best way to keep readers interested, to keep them reading/watching/listening, is the obvious one: Tell a gripping tale, one that connects with universal themes such as sacrifice, redemption, transformation, and so on; themes which readers/watchers/listeners can understand since we tend to go through similar life experiences. 

We want the people we love to love us back (as opposed to ditching us for more attractive, younger, versions) and we want the people who hate us to get the strange syphilis (but not Xander, never Xander). 

2. Tell a gripping tale filled with interesting characters.

The main characters of a riveting tale will be interesting and so we, the readers, will care what happens to them. 

A character (generally speaking) can't be interesting if they aren't believable. And part of a character acting in believable ways; that is, making believable choices; is their choices flowing from the kind of pseudo-people they are. Or, rather, the kind of pseudo-people we perceive them to be.

3. Tell a gripping tale filled with interesting characters who want things.

The characters of a gripping tale will have strengths and flaws and they will want things. Some of the things they want will be insignificant and silly, perhaps even embarrassing, but some of them--at least one of them--will likely be big and important and difficult to attain. 

4. Tell a gripping tale filled with interesting characters who want something that is difficult to attain.

Although in real life it would be wonderful to buy a lottery ticket the day before the big draw and then find out that, yes, you picked the winning number, it wouldn't make for an exciting story. 

"Jane wants to win the lottery. Jane buys a lottery ticket. Jane wins the lottery."


"Jane wants to win the lottery. Jane buys a lottery ticket with the last of her savings. Jane discovers she's won the lottery. Excited, she goes to get the ticket from her wallet but ... it's not there!"

Still boring, but better.

5. Create interesting and believable opposition

There needs to be some sort of opposition to prevent the protagonist from getting what he wants too easily. The opposition should be strong and produce a credible threat to the protagonist's goals.

This means that the protagonist has to be better--more skilled, more intelligent, or perhaps just luckier--than the forces that oppose him. 

6. Surprise your reader.

But in a good way. Jumping out from behind a potted plant as your mother gets to the part where the cat morphs into a hideous man-eating monster doesn't count. 

(Major spoilers about American Beauty coming up in three, two, one ...)

I think one of the tensest scenes I've watched was in American Beauty, toward the end, when the protagonist, Lester, is working out in his garage. His daughter's boyfriend's homophobic father, the Colonel, comes over and we--the audience--are sure that something bad is going to happen. We know the protagonist is going to die and we know the Colonel suspects Lester is in a homosexual relationship with his son.

The stakes are life and death, we're just not sure whodunit. Will the next door neighbour be the one to kill Lester?

Then (surprise!) the next door neighbour, the homophobe, kisses Lester! I was stunned. It was a great twist but one that, looking back, made sense. 

That said, this scene wouldn't have been as tense as it was if the audience didn't know what the stakes were.

(To read more about the importance of surprise I recommend 7 Tools to Hook Your Reader by Monica M. Clark. )

7. Make the stakes clear.

In American Beauty the stakes were life and death. Yes, we knew the protagonist was going to die from the beginning, but we didn't know how he would die or who would kill him.

I've mentioned the scene where the Colonel kisses Lester, that scene wouldn't have been tense if we didn't know the stakes. Yes, we knew that Lester died at the end, but that fed the suspense.

8. Write the story you would love to read.

A writer's emotions bleed through into the story. 

To write a good horror story, one that makes the reader too scared to go to sleep and necessitates the use of a night light, the writer needs to be a little horrified. To write a good mystery, the writer needs to construct a puzzle that's interesting to her. 

Above all, if the writer is bored by the story then, chances are, the readers will be as well. 

#  #  #  #

The attribution is contested, but Ernest Hemingway is said to have once muttered: Writing is easy, you just sit down at the typewriter and bleed. That's the key: Sit down and connect with your emotional core then transfer some of that to your characters. 

Good writing!

Sunday, June 15

Guest Post: Being a Writer by Will Hahn

Guest Post: Being a Writer by Will Hahn

Today I'm turning my blog over to Will Hahn.

I've been interested in Will's writing ever since I learned he considers himself a chronicler of events, something that suggested he observes and records the events of his story rather than creating them.

I asked Will if he wouldn't mind talking a bit about his chronicling and anything else that came to mind. Will's upcoming book is Judgement's Tale, and it will be available on July 4th.

Thanks for taking the time to do this, Will!

Will Hahn says:

Being a Writer: What Does it Take, and Where Will it Take You?

I’m very pleased to be here today--what could be better than interacting with fellow writers and sharing what we know? Karen was interested by my claim to be a chronicler, rather than a writer-- it’s true, I even confessed about it years ago--and I’ll start there. But I want to encourage everyone reading this: finishing and publishing your work is well within your grasp--truly, it’s a marvelous time to be an author.

Chronicler? What’s the Diff?

Some stories are best told from the ending backward. As a chronicler, the most important thing I want you to know is this--at last, at long last, I started.

My tales are all set in a single epic fantasy world. But for a long time I merely studied The Lands of Hope. I drew maps, jotted down notes on important people, wondrous artefacts, rare beasts. I sketched out certain things but not in prose--stars, the cycle of the two polar-orbiting moons, their zodiac.

And I listened, also, to the Lands--battle, the adventurers’ enemies cursing as they went down in defeat, but also merchants haggling, church-goers singing. I saw and heard so much--but I wrote nothing, not in tale-form. Writing stories is something writers do, those wondrous people (like you!) who imagine other places, who make up characters and things that befall them. None of that was happening to me. The Lands are simply there. So I watched and listened and took notes.
How long? Half my lifetime, as it stands now, and ever more as time goes by because the Lands of Hope will never not be on my mind.

My Epic Moment

Then rather suddenly, I had a revelation on a weekend visit with heroic friends--another epic story in itself--the key finally dropped into my hands. I broke down (in joy) and admitted something to myself. I couldn’t keep pretending… that the Lands were NOT real. Simple. I went with what my intuition was telling me all along, abandoned foolish thoughts like “I must be making this stuff up,” and just started to bear witness to what I was seeing and hearing.

Judgement's Tale by William HahnI am the chronicler of The Lands of Hope, a world I firmly declare to exist (ever since, I’ve called the place we live the Alleged Real World). I watch what the heroes of The Lands do, and I write it down. I began to draft out the tales in story-form in June 2008: July 4th 2011, I self-published the first two Tales of Hope and today I have a quarter-million words in publication. Judgement’s Tale Part One: Games of Chance, will be available this upcoming July 4th.

So much for “how”--I hardly think many folks will find their path to authorship similar to mine. But what’s really important, as it was for me, is that you finally begin. I have found such tremendous satisfaction since discovering that I am called to write, and of course by the power to publish my own work which is crucial but the subject of a whole ‘nother post.

Are You a Writer? Yet?

Stephen King told how frustrated he became when people, introduced to him at parties and such, would always get that look on their face, and always say the same thing. “You’re a writer? I’ve often thought of being a writer.” Mr. King said he finally landed on the proper response, “That’s great!” he’d say, “I’ve often thought about being a brain surgeon!” And there in a nutshell is as good a definition of a writer as you’ll ever need--it’s simple and it’s merciless.

You’re a writer if you sit there and write something.

Again, don’t copy me--I live and work in a home-office/home-school with myriad interruptions and not a single door. I have a full-time job and part-time talent. My manuscripts go nudge, blip, nudge through the day. I don’t command myself to meet a word count, and I don’t give myself a day off in advance. “Let’s just see” has been my motto.

Four Rules for Getting There

I would say I’ve found these four ideas to be useful for me, so much so that I recommend them regardless of your genre, experience, schedule or voice.

1. Write what you love, starting with what you love to read. 

Others often say to write what you know, but I think that will come with time, and right now the task is to make the practice of writing a joy, not a labor.

2. Read it Aloud! 

There is no better technique for surfacing weird constructions, poor grammar, and accidental, repeated or rhyming words than to actually speak what you have written. More than once.

3. Start Strong.

Having a good opening can be gimmicky and you don’t want to get carried away. But it helps to organize the flow (maybe you’ll figure out how to create chapters by finding places where the line is a really good one).

4. Seek advice, but don’t blindly follow it. 

Putting your draft out there for critique takes courage and can be uncomfortable; but the experience of other folks’ opinions and reactions will be invaluable. When they think of something you hadn’t, be honest with yourself. When they try to push your heroes where they don’t want to go- be honest with them.

As we say in the Lands--Ar Aralte! (Hope Forever)

Will Hahn is the chronicler of the Lands of Hope tales.

Karen Woodward says:

Thanks Will! That's good writing advice. All the best to you on your blog tour for Judgement's Tale.

Will Hahn's contact links:

- Facebook page for The Lands of Hope.
- Will Hahn on Google+.
- First blog post in his tour: Judgement's Tale by William L. Hahn.
- Will Hahn's Amazon page.
- Will Hahn's Smashwords page.

Also, Will has set up a raffle for his upcoming book. I couldn't get the widget to run on my site, but for details take a peek at the first post of his tour. Cheers!

Photo credit: "Unique" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, June 13

Writers: Owning Your Voice

Writers: Owning Your Voice

This morning someone asked me: 
What makes a scene gripping? What characteristic, more than any other, draws a reader into a story?
A number of answers sprang to mind: suspense, deep characterization, an intricate plot. Most of all, though, I look for an intriguing voice

Hemingway's voice is minimalist, stark, intriguing. Chuck Wendig's voice, on the other hand, is loud, sonorous, poetic, startling.

Sometimes I think a writer's voice is the single most important thing for pulling me into a story. But, of course, one's voice--what makes a voice compelling--is all bound up with developing character and fleshing out setting.

Examples of a strong voice

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants:
"The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry."
Terry Pratchett, Going Postal:
"They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged."
Stephen King, Misery:
"Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman's mouth in spite of its hard spitless lips, and the wind from this woman's mouth blew into his own mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled his warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge."
I picked those three examples because I loved them, their meter, their flow, their rhythm, and because they are from books I couldn't put down (though it took me a while, quite a while, to recover from reading Misery.)

Chuck Wendig is another writer with a voice that jumps out and grabs you (or pushes you down a stairwell, whichever). I find his voice big, bold and startling. Wonderful. If you'd like to sample it, try this excerpt from the start of his serialized story, The Forever Endeavor, over at (Note: Chuck Wendig's work usually comes with a NSFW warning.)

The elements of voice

Voice is a bit like a criminal's signature. It's something that you do even when you don't want to do it. It's a part of you, a part of the way you think, a part of the way you write.

What makes one voice different than another? Good question. On one level, simple things like sentence length--and how that difference ricochets through a work. In the examples I gave, above, look at how short Hemingway's sentences are compared to either King's or Pratchett's.

"The traditional definition of a writer’s 'voice' is, simply put, that writer’s chosen style. 'John Q. Snarlmonkey writes with snark and panache, using tons of ellipses and lots of capital letters and made-up words. I love Snarlmonkey’s voice.' Voice equals style. That’s the easy answer."
Here's a more difficult one:
"The writer’s voice is the thing that marks the work as a creation of that writer and that writer only. You read a thing and you say, 'This could not have been written by anybody else.' That is voice."[1]
Stephen King has a distinctive voice, one that is his and his alone. Many of King's fans who read Richard Bachman's work recognized King behind the pseudonym long before he was outed.[2]

Developing your own voice

Developing one's voice is a dark art. It happens, somehow, but no one is quite sure how, except that it has a lot to do with writing (a lot) and reading (a lot).

I agree with what Chuck Wendig said at the end of his article, that you have to write with confidence. I would add, though, that if you can't write with confidence--after all, in the beginning confidence can be difficult to come by--write with resignation. 

Resignation that, ultimately, there is one way of writing that defines you, one way that feels more natural than any other.[3] That's scary because what's going to happen if your friends, your family, don't like that style? What happens if it turns out your style is shocking? Unconventional? 

I think that developing one's own style takes brashness. A writer needs to lock up the jabbering, naysaying, sensible, reasonable voices that urge caution and, instead, dip her pen in the blood of her fears and phobias and insecurities and lay herself bare on the page. 

No wonder artistic types are a bundle of nerves.


1. 25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice, by Chuck Wendig over at

2. "The link between King and his shadow writer was exposed after a Washington, D.C. bookstore clerk, Steve Brown, noted similarities between the writing styles of King and Bachman." (Richard Bachman over at

3. I think that developing one's own style, one's own voice, has a lot to do with the idea of soul, or of whatever it is that makes a person unique. Yes, writers can intentionally mimic the styles of others but, at the end of the day, the way a person writes either grows out of all those inky, inconvenient, personal, individual, aweful-and-exhilerating things that make a person that person, or they turn away from the terror and play it safe. I think we've all played it safe, but when we do our best work we face the terror. 

Monday, June 9

What makes a story a good story?

What makes a story a good story?

This morning I sat down to write a post and all I could think about was the question: What makes a story a good story? Is it completely subjective or are there external measures of good and bad?  

As I usually do when wrestling with a question, I investigated what other writers thought. In so doing I came upon this jewel of an article by Mark Twain: Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

It is an excellent article, written by an author at ... well, I won't say the height of his ability, Twain may have soared even higher at other times, but one thing is clear: that man could write. Whatever good writing is, whatever it consists in, this is that.

As Mark Twain execrates Fenimore Cooper he does something else: he spells out what he feels are the hallmarks of good writing. Or, more simply, of good art.

Mark Twain on what makes a story a good story.

Twain lists 18 things, 18 qualities, that separate good stories from their opposite. I'll list them and then make a few, general, observations.[1]

These rules require:

1. "That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere." 

2. "They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it."

3. "They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others."

4. "They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there."

5. "They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say."

6. "They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description."

7. "They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it."

8. "They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as 'the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,' by either the author or the people in the tale."

9. "They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable."

10. "They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones."

11. "They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency."

"In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. "Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. "Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. "Eschew surplusage.

15. "Not omit necessary details.

16. "Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. "Use good grammar.

18. "Employ a simple and straightforward style."

Once more, those are from Mark Twain's article, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.

Here's how Twain sums up  The Deerslayer's failings:

"A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language."

Twain did not like that book.

But he does us a great service. He spells out exactly why he didn't like it, he takes great pains to tell us where, precisely, it fell short of greatness.

1. It was disordered.

A story must be structured even in the minimal sense that it has high points and low points. A story has characters who want things and who attempt to overcome obstacles to get them.

2. It had no sense of realism.

A completely made-up world can have a sense of realism. For instance, Tolkien's universe or George R.R. Martin's. 

I'm currently trying NOT to read the latest book in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, Skin Game. (I'm trying not to read it because I would happily put everything in my life on hold so I could dive in and finish the story in one great gasp of reading.) Butcher consistently makes it seem normal and natural and even reasonable that there are things like witches and warlocks and wizards. His world feels real, even though it's not.

On the other hand, a story about a real event in a real place can feel artificial, fabricated.

Realism depends on getting the details right: how people move, how they respond to setbacks, natural dialogue, giving readers a sense of place, and so on.

3. Be precise.

Twain seemed to think that Cooper used words like an eight month old eats crackers: he had a lot of enthusiasm but his precision left something to be desired. When communicating your meaning, be precise. Use the right word, not approximately the right word.

Twain writes:

"Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for "marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for "primitive"; [...] "eyes" for "sight"; "counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies.""

Twain's article is well worth reading in its entirety.

So, going back to my question at the beginning, What makes a story a good story: 

A story should be ordered, it should have a sense of realism, and in writing it one should strive to use exactly the right word to express one's meaning. 

Of course, a story can do all that and be horrible! (grin)

What do you think makes a story a good story?


1. Twain writes: "There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them." 

These aren't all the rules Twain believed existed, these are just the ones Twain thought Cooper violated.

Photo credit: "sagebrush #1" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, June 6

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Part 2 of 2

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Part 2 of 2

This is the second part of my two part series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story. Yesterday I covered points one through seven, let's move on to number eight.

8. Make the stakes clear.

This goes for any story, not just horror stories: make it clear what your character has to gain. Make it equally clear what they have to lose. 

Why is this so important? If the reader doesn't know the stakes she can't fear loss. That's a problem because emotion—fear and anxiety—is exactly what we're trying to produce/create/invoke.

As Chuck Wendig writes: "Fear is built off of understanding consequences. We can be afraid of the unknown of the dark, but horror works best when we know that the dark is worth fearing."[1]

(Tip 11, below, makes a related point. It's important to give the audience an example of how bad your villain is. This not only helps establish the stakes for your hero, but it establishes the villain as someone to be feared.)

9. Create a horrific atmosphere, one that will prime a reader's fears.

One of the key elements in scaring readers—which is what a great horror story must do—is creating a scary atmosphere. Your goal here is to communicate raw emotion.

For me, there's something scary about being in a stairwell, the kind modern office buildings have, the kind that lock you in. You can't get to any other floor from the stairwell, you're trapped inside until you get to the bottom. Combine that with lights going out and strange noises drifting up and, for myself at least, that's one creepy setting.

10. Your character must have hope.

The negative stakes must be clear—the reader/viewer/listener must know how bad it can get—but it is equally important to give the character hope, hope that everything will turn out fine in the end, hope that they'll achieve their hearts desire. CW writes:

"[...] for horror to be horrific, it must also have hope. Unceasing and unflinching horror ceases to actually be horrific until we have its opposite present: that doesn’t mean that hope needs to win out. Horror always asks that question of which will win the day: the eyes of hope or the jaws of hell?"[1]

Usually it's the jaws, but the question needs to seem real and pressing.

11. Show the badness of the Big Bad.

CW writes that dread and revulsion are the beating heart that animates horror, they are the engine that drives (drags) a reader through a horror story.

Dread is about anticipation. Specifically, anticipation of all the nasty things that could happen to your character if they get caught by the monsters. This is why, often, there is a scene early on—a revolting one—that shows how bad the Big Bad can be.

For instance, the villain often does something heinously grotesque to a minor character. This is often played as a gross out scene but it serves a necessary function: it calibrates 'bad'. 

That way, when your hero is put in jeopardy, your reader/audience has something nice, specific, and oh-so-gory to imagine.

(Of course, when the time comes, it won't just be bad—the audience is expecting that—it will be bad multiplied by 100.)

12. The gross out.

People like being grossed out. 

I don't know why. It's something primal. Visceral.

This is true—I accept it as true—even though it isn't true for me. Though I must admit there is a certain oh-it's-an-accident-let's-see-what-happened quality to gross out scenes that's difficult to ignore. (Here's an example of what I mean, it's a scene from Final Destination 5. It's squicky; you've been warned.)

CW mentions, though, and I agree, that ...

"The Squick Factor is not actually a prerequisite for good horror. Some of the best and most insidious horror is devoid of any grossness at all: a great ghost story, for instance, is often without any blood-and-guts."[1]

Take, for example, the movie Paranormal Activity. That movie was shot on a shoestring budget of—wait for it—15,000 dollars. (To help put that in perspective, Sharknado was made for a million and that was considered shoestring.) They couldn't afford special effects and so there weren't any. All the truly hideous things happened offscreen, which worked wonderfully given that the movie was shot with stationary cameras.

This goes back to the earlier point about fear of the unknown. Our imaginations are the best special effect department in the world.

13. The longer the story, the less squicky it should be.

In a short story you can be vivid and in-your-face with the gore but it's impossible to sustain that pace, that intensity of revulsion, for an entire novel. CW writes:

"Horror all but demands you don’t pull your punches, but that kind of unceasing assault on one’s own senses and sanity cannot be easily sustained for a novel-length or film-length project. Hence: short fiction and short films do well to deliver the sharp shock that horror may require."[1]

14. Make them laugh, make them cry.

Weaving comedy into a horror may seem like a wacky idea at first, but think of Scream. Yes, the movie wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but one of the reasons for its success was its somewhat twisted sense of humor, as well as the self-mocking, self-referential, dialogue. CW writes:

"Horror and humor both work to stimulate that same place in our gutty-works, a place that defies explanation. Sometimes you don’t know why you think this thing is funny or that thing is scary. They just are. It’s why it’s hard to explain a horror story or a joke: you can’t explain it, you can only tell it. And both are told similarly: both have a setup, ask a question, and respond with a punch line or a twist."

Humor goes well with any kind of story. For example, Vince Gilligan, creator, writer and producer of the hit TV series Breaking Bad thought of the show as a comedy. A black comedy, sure, but a comedy nevertheless. In one of the Breaking Bad insider podcasts he mentioned that the writers tried to include something humorous in each scene.

15. Sex and death.

CW points out that another duo we often find in horror movies is sex and death. And, under the theory that opposites attract, it makes sense. Sex is ephemeral, transcendent, pleasurable while death is eternal, nullifying and getting there is often painful.

But sex also, in very real ways, contains death within it. As soon as we're born we're condemned to die. As CW writes: 

"We all fear death and so sex—procreative and seductive—feels like an antidote to that, but then you also have the baggage where OMG SEX KILLS, whether it’s via a venereal disease or as part of the unwritten rules contained within a slasher film." 

This is a bit off topic, but I thought the unwritten rules contained in a slasher film were marvelously parodied by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in their movie, The Cabin in the Woods. As you'll remember, the promiscuous blond had to be the first victim.

16. And now these three remain: why, who and what. But the greatest of these is what.

Today I was reading about something Lee Goldberg said at a recent writers' conference:

"Lee said, 'No one remembers the mystery plot of a Monk episode.' We shared a shocked look, sure that wasn’t true. Lee must be wrong. However, he went on to explain that mostly when fans of the series talk about a storyline, they say 'the one where the trash collection workers were on strike' or 'the one where Monk had a look-alike who was a crime boss.'

"His point was that as writers we often think that the backdrop of the story is secondary, but really it's vitally important to the story as a whole. If plot is 'what' the book is about, the backdrop or sub-plot is tightly hooked into 'who' the book is about. And together the what and who make the why, and that’s the trifecta that creates the richness in a series. It's what makes us remember a book and come back to a character."

That quotation was from Much Ado About Something by Sparkle Abbey over at The Stiletto Gang. CW echoes this sentiment:

"You write horror, you’re trying to shine a light in dark corners. Key word there is “trying”—the flashlight needs to be broken. A light too bright will burn the fear away—the beam must waver, the batteries half-dead, the bulb on the verge of popping like a glass blister. It’s like, what the light finds is so unpleasant, you can’t look at it for too long. Look too long it’ll burn out your sanity sensors. In this way, horror isn’t always concerned with the why or the how—but it is most certainly concerned with the what."[1]

17. Write about what scares you.

Let me leave you with CW's closing words:

"Horror needs to work on you, the author. You need to be troubled, a little unsettled, by your own material. Write about what scares you. Doesn’t matter what it is or how absurd—hell, some people think that being terrified of clowns is ridiculous, until you realize how many people find clowns spooky [...]. Dig deep into your own dark places. Tear off the manhole cover and stare down into the unanswered abyss. Speak to your own experiences, your own fears and frights. Shake up your anxieties and let them tumble onto the page. Because horror works best when horror is honest. The audience will feel that. The truth you bring to the genre will resonate, an eerie and unsettling echo that turns the mind upon itself."

If it doesn't scare you, if you're not just a little freaked out about how dark it is in the next room and ... wait. What was that noise? 

(One moment, let me shut my door, I thought I heard something moving around the next room, but that's not possible. I'm the only one home and, besides, nothing human sounds like that. No matter, I'm sure it was only my imagination.)


1. (NSFW) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, by Chuck Wendig over at

2.  The thread, What makes a good horror movie, over at

- I didn't use this article when I wrote the above, but I did come across it while I was doing my research: The 5 C’s of Writing a Great Thriller Novel, by James Scott Bell over at Good stuff.