Showing posts with label chuck wendig. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chuck wendig. Show all posts

Saturday, January 4

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How would you go about developing your distinct voice?  And what is voice, exactly?[1] Obviously the way Stephen King tells a story, his use of language, is different from the way, say, Isaac Asimov told a story. And both of these are different from the way Margaret Atwood writes. For example:

Margaret Atwood


“On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.” (Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake)

Stephen King


“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.

“The house - mansion, actually - was cold and quiet. The only sounds were the low snap of the fire on the big stone hearth and the low whine of the November wind outside.” (Stephen King, The Cat from Hell)

Isaac Asimov


“He [Gaal] had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.” (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)

I wanted to also give you a sample of Neil Gaiman’s work -- the first section of Neverwhere -- but that would have made this post too long! But, hopefully, from these three samples you can extrapolate what I mean by a writer’s voice.

Developing Your Writer's Voice


Of course I’m just gesturing toward the idea of a writer’s voice. You need to read many stories by the same author to be able to hear that author’s voice. Similarly, to understand what different SORTS of voices are possible it helps to read dozens, hundreds, thousands of books by various authors. And it helps enormously if your reading is eclectic, don’t just draw from one genre and don’t just read fiction.

For example, in the excerpt I gave from Stephen King’s short, The Cat from Hell (one of my favorites), he has a particular voice and he’s (of course) speaking through a specific narrator. King’s voice will change slightly from story to story in part because each will likely have a different narrator. That said, after you’ve read a few of Stephen King’s stories you get a sense of what-stays-the-same even across books.

Okay, so that’s what I have to say about a writer’s voice. Now I want to get to the real meat of this article: how to bring out the best in YOUR writer’s voice.

Let’s face it, some writer’s voices are more interesting, exciting, irreverent, funny, and so on, than others. Sometimes I would like to try and make MY writer’s voice more exciting. So … what could I do to kick things up a notch?

Chuck Wendig’s Voice


I’m writing this post because of Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds. I love this blog! CW has good advice for writers (except the part about eating bees) and I enjoy his strong writing style.

(BTW, Chuck Wendig’s blog, every inch of it, is NSFW because of adult language. You’ve been warned! Here’s the link: Terribleminds)

Okay? Onward!

10 ways to a bolder voice


Our keyboards have a delete button for a reason.

If you attempt to make a sentence better by trying out one of the techniques, below, and the sentence is so hideous it hurts your eyes, just delete it!

But, who knows? You might create something playfully creative, something that will make your readers laugh, something you wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. I think it’s valuable to try something new-ish or slightly uncomfortable (and, yes, I’m talking to myself right now!).

What I’m going to do is look at a few excerpts from Chuck Wendig’s work and then I’ll attempt to puzzle out what Chuck Wendig did to make me really like that bit of writing. (By the way, I’ve left links at the end of this article to every single article I quote from.)

Quotation 1


“Oh, and I still get bad reviews. I still get rejected. Writing is hard. Easier for me than many. But still hard. And publishing is harder. Publishing can be 'passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra' hard. It can be 'pushing a rock up a hill until the rock rolls back down onto you and then vultures eat your fingermeats but now it’s time to push the rock again, dummy' hard.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

Okay, so, here are a few things I noticed in this passage:

1. Take it over the top.


Take something innocuous, a nothingburger of a sentence or idea, and double-down on it. Then triple down. (“pushing a rock up a hill …”)

2. Be bold. Be honest.


To say that I’m shy would be like saying statues don’t move a lot. It’s true but something of an understatement. Writing requires boldness. Fearlessness. Honesty. (And pen names. Pen names are good!)

CW writes: “... I still get bad reviews.” This is honest. No one likes getting bad reviews, much less announcing the fact that one’s work has received bad reviews. But I think that truth, all sorts of truth (personal, moral, scientific, and so on), is crucial to good writing.

BTW, there is, occasionally, a price to pay for boldness and honesty. I think Chuck Wendig is insanely talented and brave, but I need to include this link to show that, while these qualities can be great for creating bingeable prose, bad things can happen.

3. Punch your reader in the face (Metaphorically!!)


As we’ve seen, CW writes: “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard.” This metaphor is in-your-face. It’s kinda uncomfortable. A little … gross? But that’s the point! CW’s writing isn’t tame. And it isn’t expected. I guess that’s another way of saying it’s creative. He ruthlessly mashes ideas that have nothing to do with each other together to create something new, interesting and -- if you actually did it -- possibly criminal!

Quotation 2


Chuck Wendig writes:

“What I mean is this: the things I say at this blog and in my writing books is just advice. It’s not right. It’s also not automatically wrong. It’s just advice. It’s like if you ask me about sneakers and I’m like, “I wear these sneakers called Hoka One Ones, and they’re really great.” They are a real sneaker. I actually own and wear and love them. They’re great for me. It’s true. It’s like walking on air. It’s improved my running. They’ve ended my plantar fasciitis and also ended other associated running pains. And they might be great for some of you. For others? You might f****** hate them. But these shoes are what I know and so I will recommend them if you ask. Hell, even if you don’t ask.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

I could have paired that quotation down, but I didn’t because it’s true and helpful.

4. Talk directly to your reader.


Notice that here, CW is talking right to the reader. He set up a mini-scene. The Reader has asked him a question about sneakers and he’s replying. And the reply makes a clear point in an entertaining way. I’ve noticed that this -- conversing with The Reader -- is a characteristic of CW’s blog posts. That is, he easily drifts into and out of using dialogue to communicate with The Reader. (Stephen King does this as well, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

ALSO, notice that when CW writes, “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard” he is talking to you, Dear Reader. Well, not really. I think he’s talking to a hypothetical reader. Most people write with some one person in mind, either real or imagined.

But still. When a flesh-and-blood person like yourself reads this, it feels more immediate, more personal.

Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but I think sometimes using dialogue is … Well, I think it’s understood that the writer is NOT talking to YOU per se, the writer is talking to a reader (Dear Reader) … when this happens I have in mind some one person who could be either real or imaginary. But still, it’s a little bit like you and I -- reader and writer -- are sharing a moment together. (But not in a weird way! Hopefully.)

Intimacy encourages interest.

Quotation 3


“But I present you with this to consider:

“I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.

“No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there …” (Chuck Wendig, An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice)

5. Poke your reader.


This builds on my point, above, about talking directly to Your Reader to create more of a sense of intimacy.

Good writing evokes emotions in your reader. When I read CW’s writing, above, I smiled. I have to admit my first reaction when I read “I do not much care for Tolkien’s work” was, “What! That can’t be true,” but then I read on and instead of being grumpy with CW I smiled. Which is good! In general, if you can make your readers smile, you’re doing something right.

I don't want to take us too far afield, but I've noticed that many of the people I enjoy talking with at cocktail parties open with a good natured poke, something that evokes mild tension/conflict. For example, I walk everywhere and as I walk I listen to podcasts. My friends will often poke me about wearing ugly headphones (they truly are hideous but the sound is amazing). That poke, that friendly jab, sparkes friendly verbal sparring.

Of course readers can't poke you back, but I think that injecting mild tension into your prose can make it more readable. Conflict is king.

Quotation 4


“Junk can be wonderful. Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout? Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream? They’re junk, too. Ever seen a kid play with an empty box? An empty box is junk. But what they do with it — I mean, it’s a pirate ship, a boat, it’s knight armor, it’s an action figure base. Some junk is just trash, admittedly. But some junk is artful. Masterful. Just because it’s old — or cobbled together from various pieces — doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it junk.” (Chuck Wendig, The Rise Of Skywalker)

6. Ask Your Reader questions.


In the above quotation from his post, “The Rise of Skywalker …,” Chuck Wendig is talking to The Reader and he’s asking questions. “Have you ever seen a junkyard? An old-timey one …”, “Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream?” (And, yes, this is a good use of parallelism, but I’m trying not to get sidetracked!)

When I’m asked a question I perk up and pay attention. Now, of course, Chuck Wendig doesn’t know me, has never met me much less asked ME a question in real life. But, as someone who has read the above he kind of has. That is, as I read he is sharing his ideas with me -- and everyone else!

Remember the Holodeck on Star Trek? That's how I think our brains work. (See what I did there? lol) In the Holodeck you don't just see images, you're IN another reality. It is immersive.

We don’t just view ideas like images, we engage with them. They are us, we are them. Now that doesn’t mean that every time you think of pain you are in pain (that would be awful!) but if someone asks a question, even if it’s not directly to you, it's a bit like someone throwing a softball at you. Your hand automatically comes up and grabs it. (It's a little bit like saying, "Don't think of a white bear." You just did! Right? You can't read that sentence without, in some way, engaging with the idea of a white bear.)

Similarly, if someone asks 'you' a question, it engages you on another level. At least, that's what I think! Please let me know if you disagree.

7. Be vivid.


Staying with the same quotation from “The Rise of Skywalker …,” it is almost like Chuck Wendig is plucking images from his mind and popping them into ours. Take the sentences: “Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout?”

That’s vivid! You can SEE it. You can grasp that idea. Then, when you’ve both got (more-or-less) the same idea in mind, he can talk to you (The Reader) about it. It feels like you’re having something like a real conversation with the writer. (And no, I’m not encouraging readers to transition into stalkers!)

(BTW, Stephen King talks about this weird idea-sharing thing in his book On Writing. The chapter heading is “What Writing Is.” (For those who have already read the book, it’s where King talks about the white rabbit.))

Note: I thought about including this as a separate point but thought that might be dangerous. Here's what I want to say: If you have more-or-less mastered the basics of grammar, then don't get hung up on always writing grammatically correct prose. Before your manuscript goes out into the world, have a competent editor look it over, but when you're writing -- especially if it is informal writing -- don't be afraid of sentence fragments if you think one will help you to vividly communicate an idea or feeling. For example in the above quotation CW writes: "But some junk is artful. Masterful." And it works. (THAT's the ultimate criterion: Does it work?)

Quotation 5


(a.) “I see this meme every so often.

(b.) “‘You can’t teach writing.”

(c.) “That is a hot, heaping hunk of horseshit and you should get shut of that malodorous idea.

(d.) “Anybody who puts this idea forward is high-as-f*** from huffing their own crap vapors, because here’s what they’re basically saying to you:

(e.) “‘I’m a writer/artist/creative person and I’m this way by dint of my birth — I was just born naturally talented, a*******! — and it can’t be taught so if you’re not born with it as I most graciously was, then you’re pretty much f***** and f*** you trying to learn anything about it and f*** anybody who tries to teach it and you might as well give up now, you talentless, tasteless, cardboard hack. Now kiss the ring, little worm.’

(f.) “Writing is a thing we learn. Which means it is a thing people teach.” (Chuck Wendig, A Short Rant on the You Can’t Teach Writing Meme)

8. Vary the length of sentences.


There’s a lot to unpack in the above quotation. It is an excellent example of how to inspire emotion in readers, and I’m going to get to that in a moment.

Right now I’d like to focus on how Chuck Wendig varies the length of sentences. Really good writers (from what I can tell) tend to vary the length of their sentences. They will have one, two, three (etc.) long sentences in a row and then pepper the page with a few short ones that condense or funnel the energy of the text. The short sentences bring the point home -- pow! Like the knockout punch of a boxer.

In Quotation 4, look at paragraph (e.). That paragraph has only two sentences. The first is LONG and it is packed with inflammatory language. Then the second, much shorter sentence, drives the point home (‘Now kiss the ring, little worm’).

Of course, CW isn’t saying this, he’s saying that people who feel like this are insufferable, but through his use of language he does a very good job of inspiring The Reader to intensely dislike them. And inspiring strong emotions in our readers is a BIG part of writing.

9. Over the top insults.


As I just said, I love the way Chuck Wendig ended the dialogue: Now kiss the ring, little worm. That is so outrageous it makes me laugh. It’s effective!

This gives me ideas for my own work. If you create a bully and you would like The Reader to want your protagonist to give the bully a black eye, then give the bully a speech that ends like this.

Chuck Wendig is very good at creating emotional hooks -- even in non-fiction!

10. Swear words are emotional.


Okay, I feel like there’s an elephant in the room, so let’s discuss this. Chuck Wendig swears a lot and, by their very nature, swear words are emotional.

Many people (most people?) feel that swear words are naughty. For some people, the very act of reading a swear word can feel transgressive -- forbidden. And every interesting thing ever (e.g., the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter novels) is forbidden. Or … well, at least MOST are.

I don’t use swear words in my own work because, for me, that would be like trying to learn to juggle while using dynamite. For Chuck Wendig, it works. I love his blog posts and I try to learn from them.

You have your own style, something that is expressive of who you are as a person. And, as you continue to read and write you will change and so, naturally, will your style. And that’s very cool.

Thanks for reading! (If you are Chuck Wendig then … Thank you! I hope you’re not upset that I examined your non-fiction writing in this way. I’m a huge fan. 😀 I would be interested in your feedback, if you have any.)

In Closing ...


Many times I’ve tried to puzzle out how I could write with a bit more boldness, a bit more flare, a bit more color. That’s why I began writing this post. So I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a tip or three you could share about how to improve a writer's voice?

What I'm doing/reading:


Right now I'm not reading any fiction. Later today I'm going to study two blog posts (this one and this one) and work on a YouTube script (about something totally unrelated). BUT I should read more fiction. Does anyone have a book they could recommend?

Resources:


The following links lead to articles by Chuck Wendig and can be found on his fabulous NSFW blog, Terribleminds.

The Rise Of Skywalker, And How Star Wars Is Junk.

Writing Advice Is Bullshit.

An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice.

Tips On Horking Up Your Novel’s Zero Draft.

A Very Good List Of Vital Writing Advice — Do Not Ignore!

A Short Rant On The “You Can’t Teach Writing” Meme.

Become a Friend of the Blog


If you would like to support my blog ...

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Today I’m recommending The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I usually recommend novels, but a friend of mine told me it was very useful for him. I read it and I think, if you're going through couple trouble -- or even if you're not! -- it's a good read. Here is an excerpt:

"The 5 Love Languages is as practical as it is insightful. Updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today, this new edition reveals intrinsic truths and applies relevant, actionable wisdom in ways that work."

Twitter: @woodwardkaren
YouTube: Karen Woodward

Notes:


1. What is a writer’s voice?

I was going to talk about the difference between a writer’s voice and a writer’s style by giving their definitions. But I’m not going to do that. First, I don’t think the difference between them is important to the points I’m making. Second, understanding the difference between these two notions wouldn’t help anyone understand what a writer’s voice is.

Chuck Wendig and Stephen King each have a strong voice, and they are two of my favorite authors. As you read the quotations, above, you’ll be able to FEEL the between their voices. I think that a writer’s voice is more felt/experienced than thought about/understood. It has more to do with the heart than the head.

Monday, February 27

How To Write Creative Nonfiction

How To Write Creative Nonfiction


Today I talk about how to apply some of the tried and true principles fiction writers routinely use. Why? Because I want see to what extent we can apply them to non-fiction. But, first, let’s look at ...

The Power of Words


All writers are readers first so we all have our favorite authors. One reason I wanted to write was because I wanted to enthrall readers the way my favorite authors had enthralled me. One thing I was fascinated by is how words—just words!—could make me laugh or cry or shudder with dread.

For instance, after I finished Stephen King’s IT I was scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night (I was a child)—and became convinced that if I allowed my toes to inch their way over the edge of my mattress something black and scaly that lived in the perpetual blackness under my bed would bite them off, snickedy-snack.

How did Stephen King do that? How did his words produce such (delicious) fear in me? Writing is the blackest of magic because it allows one person to make little ink-marks on paper and at the other end produce a terrified child sitting in the middle of her bed desperately trying not to pee herself!

I’ve written about this before in regards to Stephen King (see: The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings), but today I’d like to take a look at another writer whose prose I admire: Chuck Wendig.

Wendig has certain flourishes that make me wish I could do that too. I know, different writers are, well, DIFFERENT. And difference is great. We should each of us try and develop our own voice rather than covet that of another. True. But I still find myself reading Chuck Wendig’s posts with a wee bit of envy creeping around the edges of my dark writer's soul.

(I’ll get the warning out of the way now: Chuck Wendig’s blog is NSFW because of adult language and a fertile, extremely creative, imagination! Visit and read at your own risk: Terribleminds.com.)

Fiction and nonfiction writing are more similar than they are different.


I’ve always felt that good writing is good writing whether we’re talking about a short story that makes you want to crawl into your bed and cry for three days or a darn good recipe for lemon meringues (I’m looking at you Nigella Lawson).

I feel that whatever principles are at work when (slightly shaken and knowing I’ve condemned myself to a month of nightmares) Stephen King captivates me with his prose, or I am kept spellbound by an article in The New Yorker (for example, Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast, by Patrick Radden Keefe) or I empathically bond with Nigella Lawson over the necessity of fluffy pancakes in the morning, calories be damned! When ANY kind of writing pulls me in, leaves me spellbound, whether that writing be fiction or nonfiction, recipe focused or a murder mystery, that the same essential core elements are at work.

So let’s test this theory, shall we? :-)

5 Elements of Character


For years I’ve directed folks to Jim Butcher’s posts on writing over on his Livejournal account and, IMHO, one of his best is Characters where he lays out what it is that makes a character interesting.

Now while I totally and completely agree that the following, as JB puts it, “consistently make a team contribution” to a terrific character, I think they may also apply more broadly. But more on that later. He’s the team:

A. Exaggeration
B. Exotic Position
C. Introduction
D. Verisimilitude
E. Empathy

(By the way, I’ve written about these in my article: How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist)

Now let’s test this theory using Chuck Wendig’s writing.

Terribleminds.com


I love Chuck Wendig’s writing. It’s got attitude. It bites and snarls and breathes fire. It’s different. Snarky.

He knows how to grab readers, how to draw them in. And I would like to examine—or  attempt to examine—HOW he does it. What qualities does his writing have that make me love it? How does it work?

So I’m going to present you with (brief!) passages of Chuck Wendig’s work that I particularly loved and see if it falls into one of Jim Butcher’s categories. I can’t emphasize enough that this is an experiment!

Now, I’d like to be clear about something, these are passages of CW’s writing that I loved. You might not, and that’s oaky! Also, you might disagree with how I analyze them, what categories I put them under. That’s okay too! If you’d like to share, tell me how you’d categorize them. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t take this too seriously, it’s just my own musings. In this area truth really is in the eye of the beholder. If it works for you then it works, and it it doesn’t then it doesn’t and that’s okay too.

A. Exaggeration


Here’s a passage I think nicely demonstrates how exaggeration can help spice up a passage.

“You look at it [a tiny house], and you think: I can do that. I can get healthy. I will juice cleanse and then eat asparagus and chia seeds for the rest of my life, [...] I’ll be healthy as a horse. A robot horse. A robot horse who will live forever and be the handsomest robot horse ever. I’ll lose this weight. People will admire my lean frame and my culinary judiciousness. I’ll eat like a rabbit. I will defy gluten and cast sugar into the sea and JUST SAY NO to pizzas and ice creams and tacos and all I will eat are these rods of asparagus and these spoonfuls of chia seeds and once a week for dessert I will treat myself with these delicious crackers made from ancient grains [...]. For sweetness, I will mist them with agave syrup the way the lady at the fragrance counter mists you with perfume as you walk past.”[1]

There’s a lot going on in there besides exaggeration. Chuck Wendig loves lists, and he especially loves lists that grow increasingly exotic/grotesque (but grotesque in a good way!) toward the end. For example ...

B. Exotic Position


Exaggeration and Exotic Position are by no means mutually exclusive. You noticed in the above quotation that there was exotic position as well:

“I’ll be healthy as a horse. A robot horse. A robot horse who will live forever and be the handsomest robot horse ever.”

Also:

“My family loves it. And they’re not just saying that because of the trap doors underneath their chairs that trigger whenever they say anything negative about me or my food.”[2]

Also:

“Enter you people. Hunters of tiny houses. Cave-humans once stalked lions on the veldt, but you intrepid hunters track itty-bitty homes — houses compressed down like coal until they become the shining diamonds of Spartan living.” [1]

Also:

“Now, the nice way to put it would be: writing means taking risks. Risks are — *bites lip, narrows eyes, smolders generally* — sexy. Nngh. Yeah. Take a risk with me, baby. Drive fast. Live loose. Eat raw cookie dough naked in the saddle of a galloping velociraptor. Boom. Risks. Yes.”[4]

That’s. Just. Awesome!!! It’s like a mini story. Which reminds me of something Stephen King said in On Writing[http://amzn.to/2movcNh] about paragraphs being the atoms of storytelling, but I’ll save that for another post.

As you can see, these examples involve Exaggeration as well as Exotic Position. As Jim Butcher writes, “While this [exotic position] is in actuality just another facet of exaggeration, there are enough differences to make it worth its own heading.”

What are these differences? JB says it hinges on: “Locating your character in an unusual location or situation.”[3]

In one of the quotations I just gave CW has his family perched atop trap doors that spring open at the slightest hint of negativity, I think that qualifies as an unusual situation!

But JB doesn’t stop there. He mentions several lenses we can view this through: social, geographic, intellectual and moral.

I’d say the trap door quotation is both social and moral. If CW had perched his family on the edge of a volcano we could add in geographic (though I don’t think there’s any pressure to hit more than one category at the same time!).

Intellectual ... the movie Limitless[http://amzn.to/2liBEA5] (2011) comes to mind. You know, that movie about the guy who takes a pill and becomes inhumanly smart? That’s exotic position for you! He’s not just smart, he’s the smartest guy in the world, and it’s killing him!

According to JB here’s the key to grabbing reader interest: Choose something “unusual enough to be memorable and interesting.”[3]

C. Introduction


Jim Butcher writes:

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you'll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I'm only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.”[3]

This applies to introducing characters, but I think it also might to non-fiction as well. For instance, the first time a person picks up a particular story you’ve written you—by way of your prose—are making a first impression.

For example, in the above quotation try substituting “voice” for “character,” that works too!

So, what general principles can character introductions tell us about how to write prose that sparkles regardless of whether we’re writing fiction or non-fiction? I’m going to answer that question but, first, let’s look at the role conflict plays in developing a unique character.

Conflict and contrast.


A great character is a unique character. Which means we need to make sure they are different from each and every other character in our story. How do we do this? By creating conflicts that are UNIQUE TO THEM. One could argue that a character JUST IS her conflicts. Her essence is laid bare by how that character handles the obstacles that are placed in her way. These are the obstacles that keep her from obtaining what she wants most, from achieving her heart’s desire. (And, of course, this is true in real life! How one acts when one’s deepest desires are thwarted shows who one really is, it bares one’s soul.)

What I’m going to take away from this for non-fiction writing is: be yourself. If you let you be you then, since you’re unique, your writing will be too. This is all about finding your voice and I know that sounds nebulous and frustrating, but one thing that CW has done, and for me it’s the appeal of his writing, is he’s definitely found his voice! And, which is just as important, having found it he’s not afraid to use it! He lets it out to play. It’s big and bold and he doesn’t shrink back from that.

In the following I’d like you to read the quotations but, more than anything, look at the WAY CW writes. Look at the things he leaves out, listen to the words, the flow, the rhythm. The big flamboyance of it. The following quotations were drawn from CW’s (excellent!) essay: “An Open Letter to Tiny House Hunters.”[1] Notice how he (a writer of horror) uses words and phrases suggestive of death and confined spaces:

“adorable little tomb” (my favorite!)

“Because sure, kids and animals like nothing more than being crammed together in a piano crate, forced to share their limited oxygen while Mommy and Daddy make clumsy, grunting love in the casket-sized open-air loft above everybody’s heads...”

“the ashes of your parents”

“...your bed is going to be a claustrophobic morgue-drawer nightmare.”

“...yes, that is a tiny closet, and it will hold no more than the suit or dress in which they will bury you.”

“Your dogs want to run and jump and — I mean, they’re not hamsters, you understand that, right? They’re not hamsters, and you’re not diminutive little fairy creatures, and tiny houses are not houses, they’re GI Joe playsets, they’re hipster sepulchers, they’re absurdist shoebox dioramas.”

Look at the last quotation. You feel that, right? The rhythm. You feel how it sweeps you up and carries you along with it.

D. Verisimilitude


I’m going to adopt JB’s convention when talking about verisimilitude and just call it “V-factor,” which is infinitely more pleasurable to type. If your character has V-factor it means they act believably. JB says one needs to “convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story.”

How do you do this? Through sequels[http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/04/parts-of-story-sequels-their-structure.html]:

“The single most important technique for doing that [creating believability] is through showing your character's: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believable, appropriate course of action in response.”[3]

Also, one increases V-factor through the use of tags and traits. (Which I’ve written about here: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy[http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/06/tags-traits-characterization-and-building-empathy.html].)

The point is: be consistent with how the character makes decisions. And IF your character’s behavior varies, if he makes an unusual decision that’s okay, you just need to show why this is, you need to show what he’s reacting to. Also, be CONSISTENT with tags and traits. Don’t change the color of your character’s eyes halfway through the story, that’s an obvious no-no, but also have the character’s reactions be consistent. If he always leers at the pretty women he passes but he doesn’t leer this one time, why? Was he in deep thought, had the last girl he leered at beaten him up previously, is there something wrong with his eyes? Is he under the influence of a spell?

You might be thinking that’s all well and good but how could we apply this to non-fiction? Great question!

Every essay is, essentially, an argument. Take CW’s essay about Tiny Homes.[1] He’s saying look, live your life—you do you—but I think it’s a crazy idea and here’s why. In THIS essay I’m saying, Look, these techniques are great for fiction but non-fiction writers can get something out of them too!

Beyond that, for ANY argument, consistency is key. Be clear about what the facts are (this is what a tiny home is, this is how many square feet you’ll have, this is the kind of toilet you’ll have, this is the size of your closet, and so on), be clear about the inferences you draw from those facts (you’ll never be able to eat beans again and your dogs will hate you) and be clear about how these are linked to your eventual conclusion (if you want your family to be happy then don’t buy a tiny home).

E. Empathy


Jim Butcher writes:

“If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.”[3]

There’s an essay Stephen King wrote, and I wish I could tell you the name of it but I don’t remember. It was shoved into the back of one of his novels. In it he talked about his early days, about finding the books his dad liked to read and how that influenced him as a child. He talked about his mom and how she was (in the best possible way) a little bit crazy, but in a way that made her unique and very special. And he talked about how that specialness leeched away when she moved back home to care for her ailing mother. At the end of the essay he talks about his mother’s death—and, sure, I remembered my own mother’s death and cried with him here—but the real gut wrenching part comes at the end of the piece. I won’t spoil it for you, I think it is some of King’s best writing, the way he wove the theme through the piece and brought everything home at the end.

My point is that I know from personal experience—as I’m sure you do—that non-fiction writing can evoke strong emotional reactions. I think this is a hallmark of all good writing. Which, of course, isn’t to say that if no one cried while reading “An Open Letter to Tiny House Hunters” that it was a flop. But, that said, CW’s piece did succeed in evoking emotion in me. At the end of the post I saw Tiny Houses a bit more like painted tombs than viable places to live which is to say that, by the end, the phrase “tiny home” evoked a cold shudder of dread.

Okay, so, that was the first part. We just looked at how five parts of character—exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude (V-factor) and empathy—can not only help develop characters readers will care about, but that they can also be useful points to keep in mind when writing non-fiction.

In the second part I want to go over what I’m calling “Interesting Flourishes” but only because it’s past my bedtime and I can’t think of a more creative title!

Interesting Flourishes


1. Lists of the increasingly absurd. Repetition. Meter. Rhythm.


For example:

“You know the things that give you solace. Friends. Loved ones. Ice cream. A Netflix binge. An oil drum full of schnapps.”

No commentary required!

2. Be fearless and live on the edge.


I think part of this could be a personality thing. Even when I write I’m kinda shy and tend to run various possibilities, various sentence constructions, through my head before I pick the one that I think PROBABLY won’t get my book either put down with a bored sigh or thrown across the room in a fit of aggrieved rage.

Which is probably why the following passage hit me like a bullet between the eyes:

Tempt failure.

March right up to it. Always write as if you’re about to fall on your face. Add fire. Bring the char. Toss in a weird ingredient. I wrote several _meh_ books before I finally hit with Blackbirds — and when I hit with Blackbirds, it was because I had lost the capacity to care about fucking up. I felt I had already tried everything safe, everything expected. I’d already walked all the paths and followed every map and I still wasn’t writing anything of substance, so I chugged some whiskey, bit a belt, and went hard into that story because I felt like I had nothing to lose. I no longer cared if I failed. That allowed me to no longer be hesitant, to dismiss the fear of failure because I certainly wasn’t succeeding — hard-charging into that unseen fog was liberating, and it produced not only a successful book, but one whose series continues today. Using present tense inside Star Wars was controversial, in part because tie-in-fiction tends to not go that way. Some hated that choice, some loved it, and that’s where I’d rather be. I’d rather be in a place where some people love the book and some people despise it instead of everyone saying, “It was fine, sure, it was a book, and I read it, and now I forget it.”[4]

One thing that stands out to me here is the honesty with which it was written. I think this ties back into what I said before about V-factor and empathy.

3. Putting it together: Building to a punch.


I touched on this, above, but I think it’s important enough to revisit the point.

“Some [tiny houses] look like little cabins! Others like chic trailers! Others still are shipping containers, or hobbit houses, or weird Transformers that expand and contract like a breathing lung.”

The above has a shape all it’s own. It has rhythm. We start out with a perfectly good, perfectly ordinary sentence and end up with transformers and breathing lungs!

“You then say, ‘This is cute,’ but you say it in the way someone says it when they’re looking at someone wearing a homemade sweater. You don’t mean it. You look terrified, like an otter trapped in a cardboard tube.”

I love the comment about the homemade sweater because ... yeah. It’s true. Again, we’ve gone from somewhere ordinary and placid to a place where terrified baby otters are trapped in cardboard tubes.

4. Alliteration


“I admire your desire to lean into austerity and trim the fat from your life, but unless you have a huge property, shoving a family of 6 into one of these turtle terrariums is something some people have to do, but they wouldn’t choose to do it, y’know? [emphasis mine]”

5. Comparison. A is like B.


“Right now, for me — and maybe for you — making art is like oral surgery on a rabid bear.”

That’s it! I hope I’ve made some sense. This is an epic post—at least, it’s epically long! I want to come back and revisit some of these themes later. I hope you found something in it helpful. :-)



Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents into my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'd like to recommend any of Chuck Wendig's books! He's a fabulous writer but be warned: He writes horror. Psychological horror, sure, but also horror of the more gut twisting varieties. Be warned. :-) Though, that said, he has written three Star Wars books!




Notes:


1. An Open Letter To Tiny House Hunters, by Chuck Wendig.

2. You Want To Marry This Breakfast Fried Rice And Have Its Babies, by Chuck Wendig.

3. Character, by Jim Butcher.

4. Write Unafraid, Without Fear Of Failure, by Chuck Wendig.

Thursday, December 22

The Structure of Change

The Structure of Change


The Hero’s Journey and Change


Ages ago Chuck Wendig wrote an article about story structure [1], focusing on the Monomyth. It’s one of my favorite articles on the subject. I bring it up here because of one of the many compelling points he made: each story has its own unique structure.[2]

I agree! 'Breaking' your story and seeing how it compares to a universal structure such as the monomyth can be a terrific way to help writers check whether their plot has gaps, to see if their main characters could be more fully fleshed out, and so on. But it is vitally important to take any talk of universal structure as a guide, a suggestion, and NOT as rules carved into stone.

No one writes a story because they want to manifest a universal structure, the point is for each story to incorporate a CHANGE on a fundamental level. Keep in mind that the idea of a universal structure for a story is an abstraction. It’s like saying the average resident of New York owns 1.2 dogs. The statement is meaningful but we’ll never see 1.2 dogs peeing on a fire hydrant!

Editing


I’ve found it’s often best to save thinking about story structure for the editing process. I need to first let my creative self have it’s way with the story (which, for me, means writing a Zero Draft) and then, when I sit down to transform my Zero Draft into a First Draft, I break the story and to where the plot holes are, where it’s misshapen, and so on.

I find that puzzling out a particular story’s structure is an invaluable editing tool. (Shawn Coyne talks about this in his wonderful book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.)

What do I think about when I’m actually writing a Zero Draft? I think about change. That’s what I try to keep in the front of my mind and (hopefully!) by so doing, incorporate change into the story on a fundamental level.

To sum up. In my view it is important to understand the Monomyth. Not because you’re going to incorporate all—each and every one—of its twists and turns, but because you will, inevitably, incorporate some.

Zero Draft: The Structure of Change


So what does this look like? What is the structure of change?

Most importantly—and Dwight V. Swain and Jack M. Bickham picked up on this in their (wonderful!) books on writing—the protagonist must do something. Which means the protagonist must WANT something. Which means there must be obstacles—both internal and external—that keep the protagonist from achieving what she desires. (After all, if she wanted something then immediately got it, that wouldn’t be interesting!)

In any case, from my recent perusal of scripts, especially TV scripts, most particularly screenplays from Supernatural, here is the story progression that occurs:

Teaser


In the beginning of the story the characters are introduced. The audience sees their pain points, their desires, their flaws, their strengths, and so on. But how does this happen? In TV often the first glimpse we get of the characters is in the teaser.

In the case of Supernatural, a monster attacks someone; sometimes this person is killed, sometimes they are just taken. There is usually darkness, fear and a lot of blood. The Teaser often sets the concrete goal: hunt and kill the monster that did this.

Protagonist’s larger problem


The protagonist has a problem, a thorn in the flesh, something that runs deep, something that can’t be shrugged off. Perhaps she feels responsible for the death of a loved one, perhaps she feels wronged—betrayed—by a loved one and those ill feelings are festering. Often a deep dark secret is involved with the protagonist’s problem, a secret she actively protects for whatever reason. Perhaps the secret is of something embarrassing, perhaps the secret is simply something she wants for her own. Letting go of the secret, opening up about it, is often necessary for true healing.

State the story’s thematic premise


We’ve seen, above, that the protagonist has a problem. Because of this problem he wants something. Granted, this want can be somewhat nebulous (e.g., to be loved, to get justice for the death of a loved one, and so on). This want becomes the theme of the story. For example, in the first episode of Supernatural after the pilot (Wendigo), Sam feels guilt over his girlfriend’s death. In a dream, he visits his girlfriend’s grave and says, “I should have protected you, I should have told you the truth.” He deals with his guilt by throwing himself into his search for her killer. In the process Sam becomes uncharacteristically angry when Dean wants to help folks along the way.

In “Wendigo” the theme was explicitly stated when Dean asks Sam: What are we supposed to do? What does Dad want us to do? The answer: hunt monsters.

In “Skin,” Sam wants to keep in touch with his friends from Stanford but Dean tells Sam that’s just not possible in their line of work; his friends wouldn’t be able to understand what they do or why they do it.

In each of these episodes (Wendigo and Skin), Sam’s desire (and, perhaps, Dean’s reaction to it) sets the theme. Although, again, not every story needs an explicit theme (for example, the episode “Hook Man” isn’t as strongly themed as some of the others).

Have a specific, concrete, goal


Have what the character wants be specific. To solve a specific murder, to win first prize in the pie eating contest, to demonstrate your best friend’s innocence, and so on.

Throw obstacles, internal and external, into the protagonist’s path


An example of an external problem would be: the evil critter locked Sam and Dean in a cell. If they don’t find a way out they will die. An internal obstacle might be that, because of Sam’s guilt over his girlfriend’s death, he’s vulnerable to a certain kind of monster who is attracted to people who carry around a lot of emotional baggage.

Plan 


Make it clear how your protagonist’s actions are intended to bring about achieving the concrete goal. The reader may see that what the protagonist is doing is extremely unlikely to yield the result the protagonist wants—other characters in the story may see this as well—but as long as the protagonist is convinced he will (and as long as this conviction makes sense for the character in the context of the story) it's okay.

Stakes


Make it clear how your character's plan could go right as well as how it could go completely, terribly, wrong. In other words, make the stakes clear to the reader. Spell it out. Also, raise the stakes at least twice, preferably three times. And make it clear whenever the stakes are raised. Right before the climax the stakes should be the highest in the story and it should—at least for a moment—seem completely hopeless.

Synthesis


Often the protagonist will overcome his great flaw with the help of synthesis. By this I mean the synthesis of the theme and the B Story.

The synthesis is not something that occurs in every story; it can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes a flaw is just a flaw and the protagonist fails because of it. This failure can work well in a series where another character can save his bacon, giving the protagonist time to work out his issues. In a later story you can have the protagonist finally synthesize the moral from the B Story with the theme and emerge victorious.

If you can setup a satisfying synthesis then, in my opinion, you can construct an ending your readers will love and remember.

Climax


There needs to be an element of finality about this conflict. Perhaps the protagonist and antagonist have fought previously and both walked (or limped, as the case may be!) away, but that’s not possible this time. This time one of them is going down.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to you. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’ve seen the movie The Big Short (starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell) and loved it so much I wanted to read the book: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. I have it and it has been on my To Read list for ages. Perhaps that will be one of my New Year's resolutions: read The Big Short! Have you read it? If so, what did you think? Was it as good as the movie? Better?



That’s it!

Notes:


1. NSFW --> 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, by Chuck Wendig.

2. Another wonderful point Chuck Wendig made was that structure should adapt to the story, not the other way around. I agree! That’s something I don’t stress enough.

Thursday, July 2

Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real


As I mentioned last week, I’ve been overly concerned with what others think about my work, letting it paralyze me at times. This week I want to talk about the importance of knowing oneself and infusing one’s unique perspective into one’s work.

As Grace Paley wrote:

“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” [1]

The writer immerses herself in the world to, in part, develop her unique perspective on the world. 

Paley goes on:

“One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over.” [1]

Writers are both stubborn and biased. We have our own questions, our own fears, our own concerns. Certain things mystify us and we are driven to unravel these mysteries even as we recognize the impossibility of such a task.

Paley’s words connected with me like a swift punch to the solar plexus and I realized a truth I’ve been ignoring: each writer’s work is unique because they—a person unlike any other—have given birth to it.  It has grown from the soil of their own concerns, their flaws, their unique worldview.

Creating Human Characters: Letting Your Life Guide Your Writing


This is going to seem like a digression, but hold on. 

I read an inspiring post today, “The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters,” by Chuck Wendig. In it he wrote:

“When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

“And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.”

[...]

“A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.”

“Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.”

[...]

“We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that [...] hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

“And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes.”

[...]

“[W]e look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate [...].”

Although Chuck Wendig goes on to make a larger point about character versus plot, what he says right here, in the excerpts I’ve provided, nicely echoes Grace Paley’s point.

In a way, each of us is trapped inside our own skin, locked into one perspective, one worldview. 

In this light, then, perhaps one of the roles of a writer is to know our own mind, our own questions, our own fears, our own puzzlements, with such thoroughness that we infuse this understanding, this perspective, into our writing. Further, we want to do it so successfully that, for a time, our readers feel themselves transported into another worldview. 

Which, incidentally, doesn’t narrow what we can write about. Just the opposite. By getting in touch with (for instance) our own fear of failure one can craft innumerable believable characters, whether they want to build a rocket to Mars or get through their child’s first day at school.

That’s it! Write your worldview, write your soul. I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Notes


1. This quotation is from a lecture Grace Paley gave in the 1960s entitled, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” The transcript was included in the volume “Just As I Thought.” I came across these quotations on the site Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org). Specifically, through an article by Maria Popova, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers.”

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.)

Links/References


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

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



- 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 WritersDigest.com. Good stuff.

Thursday, June 5

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story

I've reached a point in my WIP where I have to kill off one of my antagonist's minions in a grizzly way and was curious what tips other writers had for creating a gross out scene. Then I thought: Hey! I should blog about this.

That's how this post began, but it's turned into more of an article on how to write a horror story that will terrify readers—at least, that's the hope!

1. The beating undead heart of horror is the knowledge that bad things happen to good people.


Chuck Wendig in his horrifically awesome post, (NSFW -->) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, writes that "Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things." He continues:

"It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats. You feel horror when John McClane sees he’s got to cross over a floor of broken glass in his bare feet. We feel the fear of Harry and Sally, a fear that they’re going to ruin what they have by getting too close or by not getting too close [...]"

Once readers identify with a character that character becomes a bit like their child. Readers want the best for the character while realizing that the best rarely happens. 

It's this tension between what we want for a character and what could happen to that character that fuels the engine of your story and drags your readers through the gory bits toward the end.

2. Your protagonist must make mistakes. Big ones. Mistakes that put their life, as well as their sanity, in jeopardy.


CW writes that "[...] tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps."

Characters need to make bad decisions. I'm not talking about refusing to eat the goodness that is brussel sprouts, I'm talking about (as in the first Scream movie) running outside to escape the psycho terror inside only to be strung up and gutted by the psycho terror outside. Like Lennard in The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation, your character shouldn't be able to catch a break.

CW puts it this way: have characters your reader loves make choices they hate. He writes:

"We recoil at mistakes made by loved ones, and this is doubly true when these mistakes put their lives, souls and sanities in danger."[1]

I pondered CW's words of wisdom and, thinking about the scene I have to write, came up with the following:

Step one: Make the reader care about, identify with, your character.

Step two: Put your character in danger BUT don't have this danger thrust on them. Have the danger descend on your protagonist because of a choice they made.

Step three: Have the decision that puts your character in danger be either selfless or smart (or at least not blindingly stupid).  

We've all seen this: An attractive blond teenager hears an ominous noise outside the house. Moments later the lights stop working. Does our heroine run into the bathroom and lock the door? No. She calls out "Is anyone out there?" and in so doing alerts potential bad guys and gals to her location. But that's not all. She leaves the relative safety of the house to, all alone, go and see what made the mysterious noise. And (of course) she gets slaughtered.

I don't know anyone who would act like this. I wouldn't! If I heard mysterious sounds outside the house and then the power went out, I'd call 911, grab a baseball bat, and lock myself in the bathroom.

That said, yes, your victim should decide to go out and face the danger, but give them a credible reason. For instance, perhaps the protagonist let her dog out into the backyard and she's worried it's hurt. That's a valid—and altruistic—reason to face potential danger. It's something most people can relate to.

(Sorry if I belaboured that point, it's a personal peeve.)

3. Horror: the oldest story.


Horror stories have been around as long as humans. For instance, take a look at 10 Creepy Urban Legends From Around The World over at Listverse.com.

The first storytellers sat around a campfire at night making shadow puppets, telling tales of strong, daring, hunters and the creatures that killed them. (The special effects department was the guy who flicked grape juice at the cave wall as the shadow hunter is skewered by the shadow beast.)

CW writes:

"You want to see the simplest heart of horror, you could do worse than by dissecting ghost stories and urban legends: two types of tale we tell even as young deviants and miscreants. They contain many of the elements that make horror what it is: subversion, admonition, fear of the unknown."

4. Write about what terrifies you.


When researching this article I came across a wonderful thread over at AbsoluteWrite.com about what makes a good horror movie. Here are some of the highlights:

Ways to create a situation that will terrify an audience:

Restrict the character's movement.


For example, trap the character in a cellar, a church, an abandoned hospital, an underground parking garage, an island, and so on. 

Ask yourself, What kind of a confined space scares you? Were you trapped somewhere as a child, unable to free yourself, forced to wait and hope someone would come and rescue you?

The character restricts their own movement.


Think werewolves. Perhaps the character senses they're changing and they don't want the thing they are becoming to harm anyone, so they lock themselves up. In the TV show The Vampire Diaries, Tyler was chained up in a vault underground.

Play on primal fears.


  • The unknown, the dark. A dark staircase or stairwell. 
  • A character is trying to flee then becomes stuck. Perhaps their leg is caught in a trap.
  • The forest at night.
  • Twist the normal. Not everyone can be menaced by a tiki god in Hawaii but everyone has heard a strange, ominous, groan in the middle of the night and felt the hair at the back of their neck stand on end.
  • Horror often plays off of the taboo and off of suppressed emotions.[3]

Don't confuse the audience.


People can either be confused or scared. Not both.

Cheap, but effective, tricks.


In Pet Sematary Stephen King used a cat spitting and jumping into the camera to scare the pants off everyone in the audience. I know, I was there. Some think this is a cheap trick, and perhaps it is, but it was also very fun. My friends rib me about my reaction to that scene till this day.

5. What are your fears?


CW writes:

"The more we know the less frightening it becomes. Lovecraft is like a really advanced version of this. Our sanity is the firelight, and beyond it lurks not sabretooth tigers but a whole giant squirming seething pantheon of madness whose very existence is too much for mortal man’s mind to parse."[1]

Beautiful! And true.

6. What makes you anxious?


Fear is what we hope to provoke in our readers when we sit down to write a horror story, but often we have to make them anxious first. Here are a few things folks are anxious of:

  • Closed spaces. (A sealed stairwell, a locked-down parking garage, etc.)
  • Crowded rooms. (Or stadiums, banks, crosswalks, fairgrounds, etc.)
  • Getting sick, alone. No one finding you.
  • Being assaulted, robbed, etc. Dark parking lots, alleys, etc.

7. What revolts you?


Same as for anxiety. Revulsion is often the precursor of fear. Here are a few things folks sometimes find revolting:

- Snakes
- Insects
- Infectious environments
- Disarticulated body parts.

For a list of squick go here but be warned: once these images are in your mind you can't get them out! I know.

That's it for today. I'll finish my list of 17 ways to write a terrifyingly good horror story tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to the second part of this two part series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association
"In On Writing Horror, Second Edition, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, David Morrell, Jack Ketchum, and many others tell you everything you need to know to successfully write and publish horror novels and short stories."

Writers Workshop of Horror
Winner of the 2009 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction.
Winner of the 2009 Black Quill Award for Best Dark Genre Book of Non-Fiction - Editors' Choice.
"Writers Workshop of Horror focuses solely on honing the craft of writing. It includes solid advice, from professionals of every publishing level, on how to improve one's writing skills. The volume, edited by Michael Knost, includes contributions by a dream-team of nationally known authors and storytellers, many Bram Stoker Award® winners."

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development
"By applying the foundation of the Three-Act Story Structure and then delving even deeper into the psychology of realistic and dynamic human change, Weiland offers a beat-by-beat checklist of character arc guidelines that flexes to fit any type of story."








Links/References


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

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


- 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 WritersDigest.com. 

4. Character Flaws: The Ultimate Guide for Novelists
- This article isn't specifically about writing horror, but it does give a nice overview of the importance of a character's flaws.