Showing posts with label #writingadvice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #writingadvice. Show all posts

Monday, September 12

Short Stories And Their Structure

Short Stories And Their Structure

Do you ever re-read your old blog posts? That's what I've been doing (and, inexplicably, I've been doing it while re-watching Dr. Who). I just finished reading—or, rather, rereading, "Short Story Structures: Several Ways of Structuring Short Fiction." It seems like I wrote that an age ago, but it's only (only!) been four years. And, believe it or not, I remember writing that post like it was yesterday.

In the years since, I've written many short stories—though I must confess these days I write more nonfiction than fiction. Still, though, I have formed a more definite idea of what the structure of a short story is. That said, I believe these things can be idiosyncratic. The kind of short story structure that appeals to me, that fits my writing style like a glove, that feels right or comfortable, might not be the one that feels natural to you. And that's fine. That's great! Take what feels right to you, what makes sense to you, and change or ignore the rest.

So, for what it's worth, here's what I currently think of as the archetypal short story structure. (It is very close to Sarah A. Hoyt's story structure, the one she outlined in her post: The Structure of A Short Story).

1) In the first couple of lines introduce your audience to the most startling interesting/puzzling/desperate thing about your main character's immediate situation.

In a full length novel we have more time to introduce the protagonist and her situation, but when we have only 1,000 words the story structure becomes condensed and every word counts.

Let's look at a few examples of terrific openers for short stories.

a) Stephen King, "Autopsy Room Four"

"It's so dark that for a while—just how long I don't know—I think I'm still unconscious. Then, slowly, it comes to me that unconscious people don't have a sensation of movement through the dark, accompanied by a faint, rhythmic sound that can only be a squeaky wheel."

b) Ernest Hemingway, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"

"It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened."

c) Raymond King Commings, "The World Beyond"

"The old woman was dying. There could be no doubt of it now."

d) Stephen King, "The Monkey"

"When Hal Shellburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eave, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he surely must scream."

2) In the remainder of the first paragraph give your readers a good idea of your character's problem. At the same time, flesh out the setting and your protagonist's character.

If you're thinking that's a tall order, you're right. But short stories have to get moving quickly. The character's problem is the story hook. I think of this as the engine of the story, as what propels the events of the story forward.

Here's an example from Stephen King's "Autopsy Room Four" (I promise it doesn't include any grisly bits!) King writes:

And I can feel contact, from the top of my head to the balls of my heels. I can smell something that might be rubber or vinyl. This is not unconsciousness, and there is something too ... too what? Too rational about these sensations for it to be a dream.
Then what is it?
Who am I?
And what's happening to me?
The squeaky wheel quits its stupid rhythm and I stop moving. There is a crackle around me from the rubbersmelling stuff.
A voice: "Which one did they say?"
A pause.
Second voice: "Four, I think. Yeah, four."

What is the character's problem? The protagonist of our story is not dead and yet he is being wheeled into an autopsy room. We understand the protagonist's problem—he's not dead, but if something doesn't happen to prevent the autopsy he will be soon. That's a grizzly, and immediate, problem!

3) From the first paragraph up to Act Two. Develop the character's Ordinary World, specifically The Problem the protagonist is enmeshed in. (25%)

In a full length book, and in some longer short stories, the problem you develop in the first quarter of the story isn't the protagonist's main problem. The main problem, I'll call this the Story Problem, is introduced after the precursor problem is wrapped up (This wrapping up will require a few try-fail cycles).

On the other hand, in a short story of under 2,000 words or so I think it's best to give the protagonist the same goal throughout.

Story Goal: The goal the protagonist pursues from Act Two on.
Story Problem: What is keeping the protagonist from achieving the Story Goal.

Around the quarter mark of the story everything changes. If the protagonist had a preliminary goal, she now realizes that the forces which were keeping her from fulfilling that goal weren't what she thought they were. Now the protagonist adopts the Story Goal, acknowledges the Story Problem and enters the Special World of the adventure. From now to the end solving the Story Problem will be her focus.

4) Have the protagonist try to solve the Story Problem and fail. (25 to 50%)

I know it's a movie and not a short story, and I know I should probably update my movie references, but this movie is my all-time-favorite action-adventure story. Yes, I'm talking about Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. That movie had terrific try-fail cycles. Indiana Jones has acquired the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the artifact he needed to discover the exact location of the Well of Souls—and now wants to appropriate the Ark.

(For more information about try-fail cycles: Try-Fail Cycles and the Gap.)

First the antagonist René Belloq steals the Ark and seals Indy and his love interest, Marion, into the Well of Souls. Of course the Well is teeming with snakes (Indy hates snakes). Indy uses his torch to keep the snakes at bay, but the torches are burning down. Then Indiana realizes he could use one of the giant statues to knock down a wall and escape the snakes. But the next room is filled with skeletons. And so on. It's a terrific sequence!

That's the idea. Put the protagonist and those she loves in dire peril, have them grasp at straws trying to get themselves out of the fix. Your characters don't have time to think, they're reacting, going on instinct, and in that pressure cooker of adversity their character is revealed.

5) The middle of the story marks a sea-change in the protagonist. She switches from passive to active, from ignorance to knowledge. (50%)

I used to characterize the middle of the story primarily as the place where a showdown occurs between the antagonist and protagonist. And this often does happen.

But over the years I've come to view the midpoint as the place where the hero's view of the world—both the Special World of the adventure and the Ordinary World—changes. This change is permanent. There's no going back. The information, the knowledge, she acquires at the midpoint indelibly marks her. As a result it changes the story. It twists the plot.

Also, often this change takes place as a result of confronting the antagonist, the Big Bad, of the story. The antagonist gloats, boasts, to the protagonist. He lets her know just how impossible reaching her goal is. Perhaps he laughs at her, letting her know he thinks her attempts to effect change are pathetic.

The protagonist now understands that, despite all her planning, she can't achieve her goal, at least not the way she was approaching things. What she thought she knew about the world, about her opponent, was deeply flawed.

The situation looks impossible. Still, though, the hero gets away with her life, so that's something. (Although sometimes one of her allies, possibly her helper or her mentor gives up their life for her escape.)

(List of archetypes: Archetypal Characters.)

Perhaps the hero's allies help the protagonist pick up the pieces. Or perhaps, briefly, the protagonist gives up hope. Sometimes it takes the intervention—and possibly death—of one of the hero's allies to get her to take up the fight again.

6) The hero forms a plan. (60%)

Having regained her will to fight, the hero forms a cunning plan. Of course, as we will see, this plan goes disastrously wrong! But she will adapt with the help of her allies.

7) Three trials culminating in the Dark Night of the Soul (65% to 90%)

As I've said, everyone has their own way of thinking of these things, but to my mind the middle of the third act—here I'm thinking in terms of four acts—contains three events, each of them a major setback to the hero's plans, and each one more devastating than the last. The final setback is known as the Dark Night of the Soul and it completely scuttles the hero's plan.

This is the lowest part of the story. It seems impossible the hero could win. In terms of stakes, we knew all along what would happen if the hero failed, but now we discover that things are so much worse than we'd previously thought. Not only is the hero beaten, they are (apparently) obliterated.

Note: If you're writing a short story of less than 2000 words you might want to collapse these three events into one.

The Dark Night of the Soul generally comes before the hero's 'ah-ha' moment. There's something she realizes and this allows her to change her perspective. Her worldview shifts. She sees a possibility, a way out. It's a slim chance, but at this point in the story she has given up everything. The worst has happened, or at least been set in motion. She has one—exceedingly improbable—chance to save things.

And, of course, it's up to you, the writer, to determine whether she does in fact pull it off.

8) Climax and resolution.

The protagonist confronts the antagonist. Perhaps at first the antagonist is disdainful. He feels he has thoroughly beaten the protagonist and she no longer presents an interesting challenge.

Then the the protagonist draws on the lessons she has leant in the Special World, on her new skills. This gives her a fighting chance. But, as I said, it's your story. Does she win? Does she beat the antagonist and achieve the Story Goal? Or does she fall victim? Perhaps, in the end, she chooses to sacrifice herself for what she sees as a greater good.

The thing to keep in mind is that the climax, although it is a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, is all about their opposing goals. The question is: will the protagonist achieve her goal?

The antagonist generally wants the same thing as the protagonist, but the two work at cross purposes. For example, both Indiana Jones and Dr. René Belloq wanted the ark but they wanted to do vastly different things with it. Indiana Jones wanted to take it back to the States and put it in a museum where scholars could study it while Belloq wanted to give the ark to Hitler in exchange for wealth and power.

9) Aftermath.

One doesn't have to spend a lot of time on this part, but I think it's important to show the aftereffects of the protagonist's confrontation with the antagonist. Show the hero back in the Ordinary World (if she survives the climax). How has her life and the lives of her allies, the lives of those in her tribe, changed because of her journey, her struggle?

That's it!

Other articles you might like:

A Story Structure In Three Acts
How To Write A Horror Story
Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Friday, September 9

The Phenomenon of James Patterson’s Book Sales

James Patterson's success is astonishing.

  • Patterson has written, or co-written, 147 novels. Of these, 114 were New York Times Best Sellers.
  • 67 of Patterson's best selling books have made it to the top spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list. At the moment, Patterson holds the Guinness World Record for the number of New York Times bestselling books written by a single author. 
  • Patterson's novels account for 1 in 17 of all hardcover novels sold in the United States.
  • In the past few years, Patterson has sold more novels than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined.
  • From 2008 he has been the most borrowed author in Britain’s libraries.
  • Patterson has sold about 305 million copies of his books worldwide.

But perhaps the thing that startled me the most was that, in 1976, while Patterson was still a copywriter, he wrote his first book: The Thomas Berryman Number. In 1977, that book went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best First Novel. To read more about James Patterson, click here.

So, let’s get down to it: James Patterson has been insanely successful writing books that sell well. In the following I want to look at what we can learn from Patterson's practice and how we can apply those insights to our own work.

James Patterson's Work

I’ve begun many of Patterson’s books, but only finished one: Honeymoon. I finished that one because Patterson used it as an example to talk about his writing methods.

His writing, his style of writing just isn’t my cup of tea, but I have an enormous amount of respect for his work ethic and the success he has achieved over the course of his life.

So, how does he do it? (By the way, the quotations from James Patterson, below, are from World's Best-Selling Author James Patterson On How To Write An Unputdownable Story)

1. Be a very good storyteller.

It was Elmore Leonard who wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Good advice.

Patterson says:
"I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you'd feel like "Stop with the description—what's going on with Haig?" I tend to write stories the way you'd tell them. I think it'd be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that's my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I'm an okay writer, but a very good storyteller."

Here's what I take from this:

  • Leave out the boring bits.
  • Write a story like you would tell it to a friend.
  • Concentrate on telling a great story, not being a great writer.
  • Find your story, your voice, and be true to it.

2. Give readers an intimate connection with your characters.

Patterson says:
"I try to put myself in every scene that I'm writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason."
I wrote about the importance of making the story intimate a few days ago, only I used Stephen King's masterpiece of horror, "The Shining" as an example (see: []).

Now, of course, both men are VERY different writers. Stephen King demonstrates a level of skill with his craft few can match. But, just going from what both men have said about their work, it seems that Patterson is driven by—in this area at least—one of the same concerns as King.

And that makes sense. After all, this is a point about storytelling, not just writing.

My take away:

3. Keep chapters short.

James Patterson's books tend to have short chapters. I did some calculations and, from the four books I looked at, the average chapter length was about 640 words. That's only about three manuscript pages!

My take away:

  • Pay attention to the average chapter lengths in your genre. From what I've found, chapters in Science Fiction novels—as well as Romance novels—tend to be around 3,000 words long. On the other hand, thrillers often have chapters of around 700 words.

4. Outline.

Outlining saves time. I know not everyone outlines; there are pantsers and there are plotters, and that's okay.

Patterson creates a fairly extensive outline; each chapter is summed up in about a paragraph of text. He says:

"Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you're gonna get the scene, and you're gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work."

Let's say the paragraph is 100 words long. If the chapter itself is only 700 words long, then the outline represents about 14% of the chapter's content!

My take away:

  • Having an outline enables you to see logical problems in your story before you sit down to write it.
  • It's better to send off a detailed outline to your editor and give them the chance to troubleshoot potential structural issues before you write 80,000 words (and find out you have to re-write 20,000 of them!).

5. Have an ideal reader.

Patterson says:

"I try to pretend that there's somebody across from me and I'm telling them a story and I don't want them to get up until I'm finished."

Stephen King uses an ideal reader as well, for King it's his wife, Tabitha King. He tries to write prose that will make her laugh, or cry, or chuckle. That is, to write prose that will evoke her emotions. A very similar idea to Pattersons.

My take away:

  • When you write, write to someone, write to your Idea Reader. This person could be made up or it could be someone you know.
  • If you use a flesh-and-blood Ideal Reader they should be someone who likes to read the sort of thing you write. Otherwise, things can get messy.

When I notice that two remarkably successful writers—successful in terms of books sold—do similar things even though their writing styles could not be more different, I try to incorporate those insights into my own writing practice.

That's it! I'll talk to you again on Monday. Between now and then I'll tweet a couple of writing prompts—I find them useful and thought I'd share!

Till then, good writing!

Thursday, August 18

Make Your First Podcast On Your iPad

I LOVE listening to podcasts—I think it's fair to say that, apart from reading and writing, podcasts are my primary form of entertainment. Podcasts on nature, science, technology and, of course, writing. I've flirted with the idea of creating a podcast of my own, but how does one start? It seems there is SO MUCH one needs to know and do.

So, in an effort to educate myself about how to go about creating that first podcast, I've begun this blog series. Today we'll skim over what one needs to do to create a podcast—all the steps—and then, in this and future blog posts, we'll do a deep dive into each one. Today we'll talk about what recording software you might want to use as well as what your intro might look like.

 If I haven't covered something and you'd like me to, please do leave a comment.

Elements of a Podcast

I'll be going over each of these points in more detail, later.
  • Recording software: One has to choose a software package (or packages) for editing audio files that both fits your budget and does what you need it to. Then one has to install it and get comfortable using it.
  • Home studio: It's also a good idea to set up—even temporarily—a home recording studio. Obviously, if you buy professional equipment the resulting audio will sound best, but there are inexpensive improvisations that can make a marked difference in sound quality.
  • Music/sound effects: The key is to be sure that the music you use isn't in any way pirated. The rule of thumb I use for art is this: If it's not clear how the item is licensed then I don't use it. Happily, it turns out there are quite a few places on the web where one can find public domain music and sound effects. I'll list the links to the ones I've found.
  • Podcast format: Every podcast has what is called an intro and an outro. What information should they contain?
  • Hosting: After you finally have your finished audio file you need somewhere to host it. There are a number of different solutions and we'll go over the most popular.
  • Create your finished audio: You'll want to make sure that the sound is uniform throughout the podcast. You don't want your voice to be soft—encouraging your listeners to turn up the volume—and then blast them.

Recording Software

About the matter of sound quality, certain podcasts are created in recording studios—for instance, This American Life, Freakonomics, Nature—and the audio quality is, as expected, top notch.

Other podcasts, especially in the early days before the creators knew their efforts would be profitable, were recorded in carefully constructed home studios. Inevitably, the quality isn't as good but still okay. The question is: Is "okay" good enough?

 I think it depends on your audience. If care is taken in setting up a home studio, chances are most folks won't notice unless they stop and think about it. Hopefully, they'll be too engrossed by what you're saying to focus on the quality of the audio. Second, I don't think folks expect as much from a podcast as they do from an audiobook.

 I could be wrong, though. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!


Let's face it, there are a LOT of choices. Just google "podcast recording software." If I was doing the recording on my iMac I would just use Audacity. It has a lot of features, is easy to use, has been maintained over the years and—this is important, especially in the beginning—it's free. Also, the manual is actually helpful. I've used it for years and will continue to use it. Highly recommended. 

That said, we're interested in recording on the iPad (or iPhone), and unfortunately Audacity doesn't have a version for the iOS.

 I've experimented with several apps and, honestly, the only one I can unreservedly recommend is GarageBand. It's not free, but it is relatively inexpensive at $6.99. I have no doubt that there is better software but chances are it costs a lot more money. My goal here is to help those who—like myself!—have never podcasted before to get up and running relatively inexpensively.

Using GarageBand

Not being musically inclined, when I first launched GarageBand I was a bit bewildered. Fortunately, I came across an excellent YouTube tutorial entitled, "Recording a Podcast with GarageBand for iPad" by Skip Via. I've embedded it below.


 I worked through the video and ended up with a recording that wasn't completely terrible.

 A couple of things:
  • Turn off the metronome: Settings > Metronome Sound > Visual Only. I also set "Metronome Level" to 0.
  • Start/Stop Recording: Press the round red button.
  • Set "Song Sections" to automatic: There's a small "+" in the upper right hand corner, under the "?". Tap it and then select "Section A." Set it to automatic. This will let you record for as long as you have space to record.
Here's the recording I made (see below). Keep in mind that I recorded this on my iPad Air without using an external microphone. I think if I used a microphone the sound quality could be improved.

By the way, the quotation I read is: "Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work," by Stephen King.

 If you would like to edit the audio (and chances are you will) you could edit on your iPad using an app like iMovie or you could use, as I did, Audacity on your Mac.

That's it for today! Sorry for the long post. I've been working on this one for awhile. I hope you find it useful. If you do (or even if you don't!), please let me know! I would be interested to learn what worked for you and what didn't.

The next article in this series on how to make your own podcast:

Ever been curious about the structure of a podcast? Read on! Make Your First Podcast: Intro and Outro.

Other articles you might find useful:

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win
Don’t Write, Bleed
Getting Motivated To Write

Friday, December 5

Story Openings: Five Choices

Mythcreants is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs. Chris Winkle’s articles have the enviable quality of being both witty and informative.

I started off the day today by feeding Twitter. I comb through various blogs I’ve subscribed to (I use and love it; and, no, I don’t have an affiliate relationship with them!), read the articles and then tweet links to those I found myself wishing I’d written.

Well, you know how it is, I started reading one article, followed a link to another and then fell down the social media version of the rabbit hole.[1]

Happily, though, I found “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene” over at Mythcreants. “The Keys” is the kind of post I look for, the kind of thing I love to read then keep in the back of my mind as I review my recent reads.

Then I thought, this is a blog post! I can use CS’s five-keys-to-writing-a-great-opening and go through the last few books I read, books that I enjoyed, to see how they score. (The books I look at will also be best sellers; I add that qualification as a kind of objective measure. That way you’ll know it wasn’t just me and three other people who thought these books were fabulous.)

Before I get started I’d like to make it clear that I agree with CW. Each of his five keys do (IMHO) make for a stronger opening. But, that said, many wonderful books, books that have sold fabulously well, lack one or more of these features. In that light I want to stress that if a book’s opening doesn’t receive a perfect score it’s not meant to reflect negatively on the book. No. I mention it to embolden nervous writers to try out different things, to experiment.

The Criteria

First, let’s take a quick look at the criteria Chris Winkle puts forward in his article The Keys to a Great Opening Scene. (I urge you to read CW’s article and to allow yourself to follow his rabbit warren of links. His site has some of the best articles on writing I’ve come across.)

1. Immediate Action

Chris Winkle writes:

“[...] surprising them [readers] with action and conflict in your opening scene is the single most effective way to keep them reading.”

CW links to another of his articles, one in which he discusses conflict in-depth (see: Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story). I’m not going to go into the kind of depth CW has, but I’ll just mention ...

a. Conflict within a character

The protagonist has conflicting desires. Part of him wants to find the buried treasure of the ancients even if it kills him while another part wants to stay at home with his family and watch his children grow up. 

Or the protagonist wants to become partner in the leading law firm in New York but she also wants to be there for her spouse who was recently diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease. Unfortunately, she can’t do both.

b. Conflict between one character and another

There’s goal centered conflict where the protagonist and antagonist each want the same thing but only one of them can have it. If Indiana Jones brings the Ark back to America then Dr. René Belloq can’t bring it to Hitler, and vice versa. 

But there’s also conflict between ideals. Again drawing from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones cared about the artifacts themselves while Belloq was only interested in what the artifact could do for him. (The same could be said regarding their views of people, especially Marion.)

c. Conflict between the protagonist’s allies

Strictly speaking this is a subdivision of (b), but it feels different enough to warrant it’s own point. As before, this conflict could be internal or external. 

Internal: For example, a personality conflict. One person is loud and likes telling off-color jokes while another despises off-color jokes and just wants quiet so they could, I don’t know, read, sleep, write or merely hear oneself think. (Not, of course, that I’ve ever been in that situation personally. Of course not.)

External: Not all of the merry band of adventurers have the same goal. for example, in The Matrix, Cypher regrets taking the red pill and—far from wanting to destroy the matrix—wants to reenter it.

Again, I urge you to read CW’s article, “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene.”

Looks like I’m going to have to pick this up on Monday! Next time I’ll explore the pros and cons of beginning a story with a trailer or prologue.

Update: Here is an index to the posts in this series:

- Story Openings: Five Choices (the current post)
- Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist
- Story Openings: Tags and Traits: Bringing Characters to Life
- Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes
- Story Openings: The Power of Paradox (upcoming)


1. I want to share something with you that made me chuckle. Science Fiction and Fantasy author Tim Powers recently said:

“[...] you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.

“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.”

That’s from Mitch Wagner’s interview with Tim Powers: Interview With a Secret Historian. It’s a great read. Thanks to +Andy Goldman for recommending it.

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

Wednesday, December 3

Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2

Plot Wheels And The Tarot: Part 2 of 2

On Monday I wrote about using the tarot as a kind of plot wheel, something to help spark ideas, to help create a structure for a story. (see:  Plot Wheels And The Tarot) This structure would simply be a starting point, an intuition pump not a straight-jacket. 

Also, as I said Monday, don’t worry too much about the meanings traditionally associated with the cards. Look at the artwork and let your imagination go. (For this exercise it helps to have a richly illustrated deck such as the Rider-Wait deck illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith.)

As we saw yesterday, our protagonist—let’s call her Regan—wants material success (IV of Disks); that’s her initial goal. Which is going to be difficult. She has good intentions but, like Hamlet, has the tendency to overthink things (VIII of Swords). If she doesn’t get over this and act when the time is right then her dreams will die (X of Swords).

Let’s forge ahead now and look at the stakes, at what Regan will get if she wins and what she’ll lose if she doesn’t.

5. The Stakes: What the protagonist could win: VI of Cups

The VI of Cups signifies pleasure. The way I read this card, this pleasure isn’t quite the kind of pleasure that comes from acquisition of material things, this is the kind of pleasure found (hopefully) at the end of life; the Greeks called it eudaemonia. It involves looking back on one’s past and feeling a quiet kind of contentment, perhaps even of pride. To my mind, this is close to the ultimate happiness.

But the VI of Cups comes with a warning. The way I read this card, there is the possibility of illusion creeping in, one seeing one’s past the way one would like it to have been rather than how it actually was.

How this card applies to the spread: Regan could win more than she knows. She could gain far more than the fleeting happiness that comes from acquiring baubles, if only she can stay focused.  

6. The Stakes: What the protagonist could lose: IV of Wands

We’ve seen what Regan could win, now let’s look at what she could lose. The IV of Wands speaks of completion. This card in the Rider-Waite deck reminds me of a wedding, of nuptials. 

As in the Princess Bride, what is at stake is nothing less than true love. If Regan can stop overthinking things and muster the strength of will to meet the obstacles before her head on then, like Princess Buttercup, she has a chance at true happiness. But if she falters she could lose everything: her shot at true love, her job and even her life.

7. A tool or gift that could help the protagonist defeat the opposition and attain her goal: III of Cups.

The three of cups is about abundance. In this context, it seems to me that the card signifies generosity. There are times to be frugal and then there are times to let out all the stops. In order to overcome the obstacles before her, Regan must give 110 percent. If she holds anything back, if she falters, then ruin (X of Swords) awaits her.

8. A person, situation or personality trait that the protagonist must overcome (/integrate) if they are to achieve their goal: The Tower.

Even though, as I said Monday, I don’t believe tarot cards are magical, whenever The Tower comes up in a spread I catch my breath. To me, The Tower signifies a stripping away of the (generally false) securities we have surrounded ourselves with. The Tower speaks to a ripping away of masks, an unraveling of our personal armor.

The tower destroys our safe place, it overwhelms us and strips us of our (often dysfunctional) ways of coping. There is no safe place.

Not a comfortable, safe, cuddly card!

In in the context of our spread—of the protagonist’s arc—what could The Tower mean? I think it refers to the antagonist. This is just the function of the antagonist in the story. At some point the hero/protagonist comes to her lowest point. Everything has been stripped away from her, all her clever ways of coping. 

This process is painful but, in the end, it can prove to be a good thing. Some of those ways of coping might have been destructive (overeating, drug use, filling one’s life with work so one doesn’t have to think, and so on). 

In order for the protagonist to meet the antagonist head on and leave victorious Regan must ditch her old, harmful, ways of coping. She must die to her old self, her old ways, and come back transformed.

9. Final Situation: II of Cups.

The II of Cups is one of my favorite cards. For me, it signifies not only true love, but a blended, harmonious, enlightened, life. This is the card of the Renaissance man/woman. 

Since we decided this was to be a love story, this card tells us we’ll have a happy-ever-after ending.

10. Protagonist’s end state: The Empress

But Regan is about much more than her relationships. In the end, living happily-ever-after is a consequence of the changes in herself. The lovers come together in the end because of the growth and changes in Regan.

I see The Empress, in the context of our story, as signifying creation. We saw that Regan’s main internal flaw was her hesitancy, her anxiety, her inability to choose one course of action and stick with it (VIII of Swords). By the end of the story her defenses were stripped away (The Tower) forcing her to be decisive or face ruin (X of Swords). she has overcome this and, now, is equipped to bring about (/create) her version of the world. She is able to focus on her dreams, her plans, and make them reality.

That’s it! This was a general analysis, a template that can be realized in many different ways. If something in it inspired you, please take it and use it!

I’m curious, have you ever used tarot cards when trying to create a character? Have you ever pulled a few cards in an effort to kickstart your creativity and spin a story? 

Photo credit: The Healing Process by Sean McGrath under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 27

Five Tips: A Miscellany of Writing Advice

Five Tips: A Miscellany of Writing Advice

Today I’m going to do something a bit different. I’ve finished reading Robert McKee’s “Story” but there are some odds and ends, advice that was occasionally revelatory, that I never shared. So that’s what I’m doing today. 

Many of the points that follow have to do with writing a mystery. That’s not an accident! Yes, you guessed it, I’m taking another run at writing a grizzly murder mystery. My strategy this time is to keep it short; by which I mean under 10,000 words.

I’ve reached the stage where I’ve got the story (what actually happens) more or less clear in my mind but the plot (the order in which the events in of story are presented to the reader) is still shrouded in impenetrable gloom.

Robert McKee On Writing

1. The five essential elements of a thriller.

a. A cheap surprise. For McKee, a cheap surprise is a sudden shock out of nowhere whereas a true surprise involves a revelation. 
b. A false ending. You think the story’s over and then ... one final twist!
c. The protagonist is shown to be a victim.
d. A speech made in praise of the villain.
e. A scene in which the hero is at the mercy of the villain.

In my experience, while (a), (b), (d) and (e) do often occur in thrillers, (c) does not. But perhaps I haven’t seen enough thrillers!

2. What makes one story a murder mystery and another a thriller?

McKee’s answer: Point of view! In “Story” he writes:

“CRIME. Subgenres vary chiefly by the answer to this question: From whose point of view do we regard the crime?” His answer:

Murder Mystery --> Master detective’s POV
Caper --> Master criminal’s POV
Detective --> Cop’s POV
Gangster --> Crook’s POV
Thriller/Revenge Tale --> Victim’s POV
Courtroom --> Lawyer’s POV
Newspaper --> Reporter’s POV
Espionage --> Spy’s POV
Prison Drama --> Inmate’s POV
Film Noir --> “POV of a protagonist who may be part criminal, part detective, part victim of a femme fatale.”

I don’t agree with McKee. I don’t think POV is the essential characteristic that separates, say, a prison drama from a detective story. Why? Because I think that a drama could still be a prison drama if told from, say, a guards POV and that, similarly, were a person other than a master detective to tell a story of crime and detection, it could still be a murder mystery (after all, the Sherlock Holmes stories were told from Watson’s point of view.)

But, that said, I thought this list was interesting and potentially useful. 

3. About TV: “The key to the long form is dimensionality of character.”

That’s going to take a bit of unwrapping. 

By “long form” McKee is referring to what he calls 100-hour stories (e.g., Breaking Bad). 

As for “dimensionality of character” ...

“A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character.”

For example, Walter White is incredibly gentle with some people and brutal with others. One might think that someone who treats a baby with such tenderness wouldn’t be capable of the level of brutality we saw Walter White achieve. 

So, in other words, the more contradictions you can believably weave into your character, the better. For instance, passive + aggressive, cruel + kind, arrogant + meek, brilliant + ignorant, and so on.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, often the key to showing a characters many dimensions is to pair him with other characters that will tease out these various qualities. (For more about this see: Mind Worms And The Essence of Drama as well as The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites.)

McKee’s comments here came from “The God of Story” by Alec Sokolow and Tony Camin.

4. The single most important question to ask yourself about your story: “Why am I attracted to this material?”

This is what McKee calls one of the big questions

I don’t agree with everything McKee says, though even what I don’t agree with often contains enough interest to warrant studying it. This, though, I agree with completely.

Why do you need to write this story? What need does it fill, what itch does it scratch? Are you fed up with multinational corporations raping the earth? Or perhaps you’re exasperated with (as my father called them) those darn environmentalists (he also shook his cane when a ‘young-un’ came too close to the lawn—really) trying to hogtie good, honest capitalists. Whatever your passion, whatever your outrage, whatever gets your juices flowing, transform it and connect it up to the story.   

5. The difference between English murder mysteries and American murder mysteries.

McKee said:

“In the English tradition a murder is committed and the investigation drives inward: you know, you’ve got six possible murderers. In the American Tradition, a murder is committed, we start to investigate, and it turns out to encompass all of society.”

For example, someone finds “an innocuous note saying that a professor has disappeared while hiking in the Andes, and some little bureaucrat is charged with finding out what happened, and he finds a conspiracy that runs to the White House.” (The Real McKee, New Yorker)

BTW, as an example of a mystery in the American tradition McKee mentions “The Parallax View.”

That’s not the first time someone has talked about the key difference between English and American murder mysteries—and it certainly won’t be the last!—but McKee’s formulation is both concise and clear. 

I think this is a good thing to keep in mind; at least, it’s something I try to keep in mind. English murder mysteries tend to   be narrow and deep. That is, they tend to tunnel inward into the lives of the victim and the suspects. American murder mysteries, on the other hand, tend to be wide and thin. That is, they tend to spread outward through society.

6. The protagonist’s arc

a. Balance. At the start of the story the protagonist’s life is more or less in balance.

b. The Inciting Incident. The protagonist’s life falls out of balance.

c. The Call to Adventure. This imbalance instills within the protagonist a conscious or unconscious desire to bring his life—to bring the world—back into balance.

But McKee isn’t just talking about character arcs. He says:

“The students realize that it’s their life I’m talking about: it’s out of balance, they’re struggling to put it into balance. How are they going to do it? They have conceived of that object, that something that if they could get it, would restore the balance of their life. Now, for the character, it could be that he needs to right the injustice that was done to his family; it could be to find something worth living for him to get up in the morning. Right? But for the student it’s a successful piece of writing and until they achieve a successful piece of writing their lives will be perpetually out of balance.”

I doubt that by “successful” McKee is only referring to monetary success. I think that, for some writers, a successful story would be one they were proud of having written. Or, to put it another way, a successful story, for some, could be a satisfying story. One that scratches a certain, internal, itch. One that brings—no matter how briefly—balance.


What McKee says here intrigues me. Everyone’s life, he says, is out of balance. His, mine, yours. Perhaps there wasn’t one single event, or one single cause, responsible for this imbalance but, regardless, we want to (consciously or unconsciously) achieve balance. 

If you’re a writer, or you want to be a writer, then that’s one way that (again, perhaps unconsciously) you’re striving to achieve balance. Balance in your life, balance in your world. 

Once we understand this, we also gain a greater understanding of our characters and of the quests we send them on.

Okay, maybe I read between the lines a wee bit! If you’d like to read the interview and judge for yourself, the above was from “The Real McKee: Lessons of a screenwriting guru” by Ian Parker over at the New Yorker.

That’s it! 

I’m curious. What is the most valuable advice you were ever given about writing? Please share!

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 22

Robert McKee: A Writer’s Method

Robert McKee: A Writer’s Method

Yesterday I finally finished Story by Robert McKee. It’s an excellent writing resource, one I would recommend to anyone interested in kicking their writing up a notch.

Although McKee’s book is primarily for screenwriters much of what he says is applicable to novelists as well. Why? Because what writers and screenwriters are both concerned about above anything else is creating a terrific story.

In this post, I’d like to focus on something McKee says at the end of his book about a writer’s methodology. 

McKee writes that, generally speaking, there are two ways to write a story: from the outside in and from the inside out. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Writing from the outside in.

Here’s the skeleton of this idea:

1. Person comes up with a fantastic idea.
2. Person commits the idea to paper by writing a first draft. This process can take a few weeks, months or years.
3. In subsequent drafts, person tries to fit the ideas teased out in the rough draft into some kind of structure.

I think this is what most writers do. They sit down, sketch out a few ideas, have two or three ideas that fit together in interesting ways, they have a vague-ish feeling for what is going to happen in the middle and at the end, and then they put their butt in their chair and they write.

Writing from the inside out.

Here’s the skeleton:

1. Person comes up with a fantastic idea.
2. Person fiddles with the idea (or ideas) and creates a (~10 page) step-outline; this gives them the overall structure of the story. This process can take a few weeks or a few months. (No dialogue is written during this stage.)
3. The step-outline is turned into a 60 to 90 page treatment.
4. Person writes a first draft.

The Step-Outline: Two Parts

Part One: The Outline

A step-outline is a lot like a traditional writer's outline with one major difference—and I'll get to that in a moment. In a step-outline you describe each scene in the story.

  • What is the setting? Indoors? Outdoors? 
  • Which characters are in it? 
  • What goals do the characters have, and are their goals thwarted? If so, how? 
  • What are the stakes? 
  • What kind of emotional change occurs? And so on. 

An outline usually runs around 10 pages, give or take. So let’s do the math. Let’s say you want to write an 80,000 word novel and that this novel will have about 60 scenes in it. That means there'll be about 1333 words per scene. If we want to fit 60 scenes into 10 pages than means (assuming a page holds about 300 words) that we need to fit 6 scenes per page. At 300 words per page that means each scene's description must take NO MORE than 50 words. (To give you an idea, this paragraph has about 100 words in it.) That's not a lot of words!

Part Two: The Major Difference

The second part of a step-outline—and this is the bit I said I’d get to—is that, for each scene ...

“[...] the writer indicates what step in the design of the story he sees this scene fulfilling—at least for the moment. Which scenes set up the Inciting Incident? Which is the Inciting Incident? First Act Climax? Perhaps a Mid-Act Climax? Second Act? Third? Fourth? Or more? He does this for Central Plot and subplots alike.”

(For more on three-act and four-act structures, see Parts of Story: A General Story Structure and A Four Act Structure.)

You might be wondering, WHY on earth go into this much detail? Here’s McKee’s answer: to destroy your work.

When I first read that I was taken aback. What? Destroy my work? Why would any sane writer (which, granted, might be a contradiction in terms ;) want to destroy his work? McKee Explains:

“Taste and experience tell him that 90 percent of everything he writes, regardless of his genius, is mediocre at best. In his patient search for quality, he must create far more material than he can use, then destroy it. He may sketch a scene a dozen different ways before finally throwing the idea of the scene out of the outline. He may destroy sequences, whole acts.”

I can imagine Lee Child shuddering. 

When I read this I wondered, Is that true? Are 90 percent of my ideas thrown out? But ... yes. I have to say that more-or-less matches what I do now. By the time I reach the final draft of a story most of the original ideas have been discarded or transformed in some way. And I think that usually works out for the best, one’s first impulse, though often good, is often not the very best that could be achieved. In any case, it’s something to think about.


After you’ve got the step-outline done you need to work up a pitch so you can get feedback from others. (For more on writing a pitch see: The Structure of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.) And most people want to do this before they write a first draft because they may find they need to go back to the drawing board.

McKee writes:

“[The writer] wants to tell or pitch his story so he can see it unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of another human being. He wants to look in that person’s eyes and see the story happen there. So he pitches and studies the reactions: Is my friend hooked by my Inciting Incident? Listening and leaning in? Or are his eyes wandering? Am I holding him as I build and turn the progressions? And when I hit the Climax, do I get a strong reaction of the kind I want?”

You want your story to grab the person’s attention, to cause him to experience the emotions you were trying to elicit. McKee continues:

“Regardless of genre, if a story can’t work in ten minutes, how will it work in 110 minutes? It won’t get better when it gets bigger. Everything that’s wrong with it in a ten-minute pitch is ten times worse onscreen.”

Again, obviously, McKee is directing those remarks to screenwriters, but it holds for novelists as well. If we can’t hold someone’s attention through a 5 or 10 minute pitch, good luck holding their attention for the 10 or so hours it will take them to read the book!

The Treatment

After the step-outline is completed screenwriters create what’s called a treatment. While opinions differ as to how long a treatment should be, McKee holds a treatment should be about 60 to 90 double-spaced pages while others claim that 5 to 10 will usually get the job done. My guess is that what McKee calls an outline others refer to as a treatment. Whatever. As long as we know what we’re talking about the name isn’t important.

What goes into a treatment?

The idea is to expand “each scene from its one or two sentences to a paragraph or more of double-spaced, present-tense, moment by moment description.”

So, again, let’s say we’re writing an 80,000 word book and that our treatment will come out to 80 double-sided pages. That’s 24,000 words. Dividing that into 60 scenes we get 400 words. 

One thing to note is that dialogue isn’t included in a treatment. McKee writes:

“In treatment the writer indicates what characters talk about—‘he wants her to do this, but she refuses,’ for example—but never writes dialogue. Instead, he creates the subtext—the true thoughts and feelings underneath what is said and done. We may think we know what our characters are thinking and feeling, but we don’t know until we write it down.”

McKee holds that “dialogue written after in-depth preparation creates character-specific voices.” Which is a pretty big payoff.


I think McKee is onto something. Myself, I use what McKee might view as an unholy amalgam of the two methods.

For example, as you may recall from previous posts, despite being a died in the wool fan of murder mysteries I’ve never written one. So, just a few weeks ago I cooked up an idea to write a short murder mystery (around 10,000 words) in seven (or so) parts but I wanted my sleuth to have a superpower. As a bonus, I had the first two scenes clear in my head.

So far, so good. I sat down and wrote the scenes I had in mind and then realized the story was turning into a thriller rather than a whodunit. So I drew up a detailed outline using most of the character’s I’d created in my first attempt. I broke the story into scenes and sketched out how each scene would end. Then I determined which characters would appear in which scenes and (first) what the clues would be and (second) where and how to fit them in.

Now I just have to put my butt in my chair and write. (grin)

Do you have a writing method you stick to or do you write by the seat of your pants?

Photo credit: "Look, a bird" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 8

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Puzzle Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Puzzle Openings

On the 31st I began a series on Story Openings and claimed—boldly—that there were six. Well, more or less six; I suppose it depends on how one looks at it. Today I’d like to examine what I’m calling the Puzzle opening. (Here is the first post in this series: Six Ways to Begin a Story.)

Puzzle Openings

 I think of a puzzle opening as any kind of opening which isn’t primarily a description or that doesn’t primarily communicate conflict but which has been constructed to disorient and intrigue the reader.[1]

This can be done in a number of ways. For instance, by mentioning something impossible (or very unlikely) so the reader wonders, “What’s going on here, how can that be?” and reads on.

Example 1: 1984

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)

When I first read this sentence the mention of the clocks striking thirteen immediately got my attention. I was curious. What? Striking thirteen? It’s not an expression I had heard before.

“Thirteenth stroke of the clock or "thirteen strikes of the clock" is a phrase, saying, and proverb to indicate that the previous events or "strokes to the clock" must be called into question.” (Thirteenth Stroke of the Clock, elaborates:

“The thirteenth stroke here doesn't refer to military time but to an old saying. References to a thirteenth stroke of the clock indicate that some event or discovery calls into question everything previously believed. Put another way, the thirteenth stroke of the clock calls into question not only the credibility of itself but of the previous twelve.

“But notice in this opening line that it isn't just one clock malfunctioning, but the clocks. Presumably all of them. In this world, the clocks striking thirteen is not an aberration, but a normal way of life.

“In this way, Orwell subtly alerts the reader that statements of truth in this fictional society should be called into question.”

Here’s another opening I think of as a puzzle opening ...

Example 2: City of Glass

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” (City of Glass by Paul Auster)

Here the protagonist gets a call from a stranger, a call that was intended for someone else. But this event sets the events of the book in motion. The question: How could a wrong number do this? Did he know the caller? Did the caller not believe him when he denied being who the caller believed he was? What was the call about? And so on.

Or (and this is my favorite) ...

Example 3: Peter Pan

“All children, except one, grow up.” (Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)

The question raised: Why doesn’t this child grow up? What is special about him? I found the idea fascinating and tragic. (Tragic because, at the time, there was nothing I wanted more than to grow up. Oh how things change. ;)

Of course there’s a certain amount of overlap. To me the first line of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is more about conflict than it is a puzzle but it also contains a puzzle: How on earth did this happen? Though, of course, the story is more about what happens than why it happened or even what kind of critter Gregor Samsa became.

That’s it! We’ve covered descriptive openings, conflict filled openings, puzzle openings. In the not too distant future I’ll cover archetypal openings, character driven openings and humorous openings. I think, though, that in my next post I’ll explore the tarot and how writers can use it to get inspiration for a scene.


1. I want to stress that when I say an opening is of a certain kind, say a descriptive opening, I don’t mean to imply it doesn’t, for example, contain elements of conflict.

photo credit: "SuperFolie" by Joan Sorolla under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, October 29

On Using Symbols In Your Story

On Using Symbols In Your Story

What Is An Image System?

Before I talk about what an Image System is let’s look at an example of one in use. 

In Pierre Boileau’s novel Celle Qui N’etait Pau (later made into the movie Les Diabolique), Christina—the main character—is married to a sadist, Michel. Christina is rich, Michel is not. Michel has recently taken a mistress (Nicole) but instead of the wife and mistress hating each other they find solace in sharing their misery. Together they come up with a solution: kill Michel. They drown him and hide his body in a never-used swimming pool. 

But there’s a problem: the body disappears. Some time later Michel is seen at various windows and his image appears in the background of a recently taken picture.

The women are near hysterics. What is happening? Did they fail to kill Michel and he is doing this to try and drive them mad? Did someone else find the body and they are behind this? But why? To what purpose?

In the end, Nicole cannot take it any more and moves out, leaving the wife alone in a large empty building. Her heart, never strong, is stressed to the limit and when she sees—or believes she sees—her husband’s dead body floating in her bathtub she suffers a fatal heart attack. Seeing this, the husband hops out of the bath and Nicole pops out of the cabinet she’d been hiding in. They embrace. The end.

Water was the image, the symbol, used in this movie. In his analysis McKee writes:

“The opening titles of Les Diabolique look as if they’re over an abstract painting of grays and blacks. But suddenly, as titles end, a truck tire splashes from bottom to top of the screen and we realize we’ve been looking at the top angle view of a mud puddle. The camera comes up on a rainy landscape. From this first moment on, Image System “water” is continually and subliminally repeated. It’s always drizzly and foggy. condensation on windows runs in little drops to the sills. At dinner they eat fish. Characters drink wine and tea while Christina sips her heart medicine. When the teachers discuss summer vacation, they talk of going to the South of France to “take the waters.” Swimming pool, bathtubs... it’s one of the dampest films ever made.” 

External vs Internal Image Systems

There are, roughly, two kinds of image systems: external and internal. External images/symbols get their meaning from the outside and use them, unaltered. Internal images, on the other hand, get their meaning from the story itself. McKee writes:

“Internal Imagery takes a category that outside the film may or may not have a symbolic meaning attached but brings it into the film to give it an entirely new meaning appropriate to this film and this film alone.”

How To Pick An Image System

Stephen King, in On Writing, writes:

“I most often see chances to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done. [...] Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story.”

For example:

“When I read Carrie over prior to starting the second draft, I noticed there was blood at all three crucial points of the story: beginning (Carrie’s paranormal ability is apparently brought on by her first menstrual period), climax (the prank which sets Carrie off at the prom involves a bucket of pig’s blood [...]), and end (Sue Snell, the girl who tries to help Carrie, discovers she is not pregnant as she had half-hoped and half-feared when she gets her own period).”

“[...] the significance of all that blood was hard to miss once I started reading over my beer- and tea-splattered first-draft manuscript. So I started to play with the idea, image, and emotional connotations of blood, trying to think of as many associations as I could. There were lots, most of them pretty heavy. Blood is strongly linked to the idea of sacrifice; for young women it’s associated with reaching physical maturity and the ability to bear children; in the Christian religion [...] it’s symbolic of both sin and salvation. Finally, it is associated with the handing down of family traits and talents. We are said to look like this or behave like that because “it’s in our blood.””

A Warning

Whatever kind of symbolism used it must not be obvious. Symbols work on the unconscious mind in something like the same way music does. McKee writes:

“The use of symbolism follows the same principle as scoring a film. Sound doesn’t need cognition, so music can deeply affect us when we’re unconscious of it. In the same way, symbols touch us and move us—as long as we don’t recognize them as symbolic. Awareness of a symbol turns it into a neutral, intellectual curiosity, powerless and virtually meaningless.”

That’s it! What symbols have you used in your work?

Photo credit: "snow patrol:make this go on forever" by Lali Masriera under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 28

What Makes A Story Terrifying?

What Makes A Story Terrifying?

I love Halloween. Always have. Perhaps that’s why I love a good horror story.

The first horror story I heard was a spine-tingling tale of betrayal and dismemberment told around a dying fire. I remember it like it was yesterday. The flames flickered lazily over black husks of logs and faintly illuminated the shadowed faces of my nearest and dearest. But then as I looked at them something happened. In the space between two heartbeats they appeared transformed, hollow, their darker halves exposed.

Then someone laughed uneasily and the spell was broken. The monsters—or at least my recognition of them—melted away, sinking into my unconscious were it remains, the fuel of nightmares. 

Mm-wha-ha-ha. ;-)

What Makes A Scary Story A Horror Story?

What are the essential bits of a scary story, one that makes us imagine horrors under the bed so vividly we dare not dangle our toes over the edge?

I’ve accepted a challenge to write a scary story (ideally under 1,000 words, but in my case that’s SO not happening) and post it this Saturday as part of a special #SaturdayScenes challenge

I’ve thought of a story, but I wondered: is this story scary? Or, to put it another way, even though this story of mine has scary bits, is it really a horror story. So I took my question to Google and came up with an answer courtesy of Stephen King:

“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …” [1]

The Gross-Out, The Horror, The Terror

Although I’m sure it’s not as simple as this, let’s say that as long as a story has at least one of these three in it—the gross-out, the horror or the terror—that the story can, without undue fear of contradiction, be called a horror story.

Of course a horror story is, above all, a story and so (all things being equal, which they never are) should have a protagonist who wants something desperately. There should also be a force—a person or monster or supernatural entity—that opposes her achieving her goal. And there should be stakes. For more on this see:

What is horror? Terror? What gives rise to those emotions?

Let’s return to discussing the horror story. I’ve been reading Stephen King lately to pick up a few pointers, mostly his tome on terror: Danse Macabre. He writes:

“I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more or less than a necessary illusion [...] the feelings which we think of as “positive” and “constructive” are a reaching-out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication.”

“Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone.”

“The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration... but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again.”

“The closest I want to come to definition or rationalization is to suggest that the genre exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it. The finest emotion is terror, that emotion which is called up in the tale of [...] “The Monkey’s Paw.” We actually see nothing outright nasty [...] there is the paw, which, dried and mummified, can surely be no worse than those plastic dogturds on sale at any novelty shop. It’s what the mind sees that makes these stories such quintessential tales of terror.”

Terror is psychological. Mental. I’m reminded of a piece of flash fiction posted over at Creepypasta (that site is NOT safe to browse at work). Here’s the story, entitled "Bad Dreams":

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness — it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralyzed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift. [2]

We don’t see anything horrific, there is no gore. The terror is that someone who we thought we knew well, someone who is intimately entwined with our life, isn’t who we thought they were. We have invited the dangerous outsider into our lives and now nothing is to stop them from doing their worst. 

Or, as in “The Monkey’s Paw,” the terror could be that someone we know and love has been, through no fault of their own, transformed into a dangerous outsider.

King concludes that, at its heart, terror is about “secrets best left untold and things best left unsaid.” And what does the writer of horror do? They “promise to tell us the secret.”

That’s it! I was going to say something about horror and ‘the gross out,’ but I think we’ve probably got a handle on both of those. Remember, good horror, like all good fiction, is about the truth inside the lie.


1. This quotation is attributed to Stephen King and it does read like something he would write. The Writer’s Digest article (The Horror Genre) doesn’t attribute the quotation to a specific work, but elsewhere it is said to come from King’s book “Danse Macabre,” which I can believe. After all, that book is King’s take on Horror, what it is, what it means, and so on. BUT I’ve searched my digital copy of the book and haven’t found it. I thought perhaps the quotation came from an updated version of the book but this morning I read the new forward to the 2010 edition in it’s entirety (courtesy of Google Books since I don’t want to buy the newer version) and didn’t find the quotation. Perhaps I simply missed it, but I thought I would note this minor mystery. If anyone comes upon the quotation in King’s work, I would appreciate it if you would tell me where it’s found. Thanks!

2. Creepypasta, over at

Photo credit: "Evil Min-ja" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, October 25

How To Coax Story Ideas Out Of Hiding

How To Coax Story Ideas Out Of Hiding

Ever been stuck for a plot? You wanted to write something but all your ideas fled, leaving you with what seemed like an infinite white field of nothing? I have! 

Here’s my theory: I think ideas tend to flee when we’re anxious or tense or feeling stressed. So something—anything—that helps us relax and not take our writing quite so seriously can be a gift from the gods. I’ve found idea generators can help me get into a playful mood and fill the idea-void.

NaNoWriMo & Idea Generators

In the early part of last century the only idea generators in existence were plot wheels; these days we click buttons rather than twirl disks, but it’s the same idea. (see: NaNoWriMo, Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Plot Wheels)

Personally, I think random idea generators have their place. Though I practically never use their suggestions, idea generators can help coax out our own ideas, ones that have been hiding in our unconscious mind.

The FIG Idea Generator

The FIG Idea Generator is based on William Wallace Cook’s book, Plotto. Published in 1928, Plotto was billed as “The master book of all plots.” (Unfortunately, FIG is only available through the Apple Store, but there is a site, Writing Exercises (, that has basically the same functions.)

FIG: An Example

Let’s take FIG for a twirl and see what kind of story skeleton we can create. FIG’s main screen presents one with a choice between selecting a random Masterplot, Plot, Character, Word, 1st Sentence, Emotion, Item or Location. Let’s go through most of these.


Here’s what I got for the masterplot: “A person influenced by the occult and the mysterious, seeking to demonstrate the powers of love by a test of courage, faces a guilty plotter and defeats a subtle plot.”

I like that! I see many different possibilities. Let’s see what we get for the rest. 


Tense: Present
Narrator: Alternating person
Period: During the Gulf War
Situation: Enemy of kin
Protagonist: A male dance teacher who is languid.
Supporting character: A male geophysicist who is mature.
Their relationship: Broken.

I’m less enthusiastic about these choices. While I’ve always wanted to try writing a short story using the present tense I’m less thrilled about having a dance teacher for a protagonist. Mostly because I know nothing about dance and even less about dance teachers!

I decided to roll until I found something I wanted to work with (after all, the object here is to have fun and get our creative juices flowing).

Here’s what I came up with in the end:

Tense: Present
Narrator: Alternating person
Period: Three days ago.
Situation: Enemy of kin/Disputed inheritance
Protagonist: A glamorous male movie director.
Supporting character: A hostile, male, occupational therapist.
Their relationship: Broken.

We’re not done! Now we move on to character.


I wasn’t sure how this fit into the other categories, or if it was supposed to, but here’s what I came up with:

“An enthusiastic, female, butcher who is Scottish and goes by the name of Kelsey Graham.”

I got this description on about the 5th try and love it! I can see her, my proper Scottish lass with a enormous cleaver in her hand and a bloody apron. She gives me a look that sends a chill through me and says, “Yea? Whad’ya want?”

But, what do do with her? We already have a protagonist and supporting character, so Kelsey could be our protagonist’s nemesis. Not a villain, simply someone working in opposition to the protagonist’s goal.

Which brings us to ...

The Goal

FIG doesn’t have a random goal generator, neither does Writing Exercises, so I went in search of a list of popular goals. I found this one, 100 popular goals, so all we have to do is head over to and pick a number between 1 and 100 (or think of one) and we’re set!

My choice is number 15: To save money.

The Location

What will our setting be? It took a few tries but I liked the idea of a cliff. I take this to mean that one of the significant locations in the story should involve a cliff.

The Item

I chose: A mirror.

Story Summary

So, putting it all together, our story skeleton is as follows:

Write about a glamorous male movie director who is influenced by the occult and who seeks to demonstrate the power of love by a test of courage. As he does so, our brave director will defeat a subtle plot (perhaps one set in motion by his nemesis the Scottish butcher).

 The situation (see above) was that of a disputed inheritance so perhaps the butcher is his sister. They are normally close, but they each want a certain something, the same certain something, from their father’s estate. (Perhaps a mirror?)

Since this is about the occult, let’s say the director thinks this something, this artifact, holds the key to unlocking a mystery that has fascinated him, driven him, his entire life.

His sister, though, is much more pragmatic. She is going through a bad patch financially and wants to sell the mirror. The brother is incensed by this suggestion. “If you would allow me to use the artifact we would be wealthy.”

You can see that the goal has shifted a bit, from saving money to acquiring money, but I think the important thing is to be willing to ignore random choices and make the story one’s own.

That’s it! That was an example, if anyone feels inspired and would like to write this story, please do! I’d love to know how it all turns out. Is the director simply insane or is the mirror a portal to something more? How far will each character go to get what they want?

Photo credit: "Early morning sunshine" by Caroline under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.