Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 18

How To Write A Horror Story

How to Write a Horror Story

This morning I was writing a horror story and I realized that the structure of a classic horror story is different than the typical hero's journey. 

In this post I ask, and attempt to answer, two questions:

1) What exactly is the structure of a horror story?
2) What is the purpose of a horror story? What is it supposed to accomplish? How will we know whether we've succeeded or failed?

Let's take this in parts.

The Purpose of a Horror Story

What is a good horror story supposed to do? What is its function? That's easy! It's supposed to terrify, or at least deeply disturb. If you're not horrified by the end, then the story could be great and wonderful, but it's not a horror story.

The Structure Of A Horror Story

What are the parts of a horror story?

This is something I'm sure I'll continue to think about over the years, but here's what I've come up with so far. As you can see, I'm adapting Christopher Vogler's take on Joseph Campell's work (see The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

The initial situation/The ordinary world

There are a few parts here.

a. The hero does something normal.

The hero/protagonist is active. 

Perhaps the hero goes on a date, perhaps they meet friends, perhaps they go on a road trip. This is a great place to introduce your characters. Foreshadow the dangers to come.

For example: A mother plays a game of hide-and-seek with her children. (This example is, in part, based on this.)

b. There's a problem

Something goes wrong.

For example: The mother can't find her children. The college students on the road trip get lost. In The Cabin In The Woods the GPS breaks.

At some point in the first act the theme or moral might be stated. For instance, in The Cabin In The Woods, 8.5 minutes into the movie Marty says, "Society needs to crumble, we're all just too chickenshit to let it."

c. Warning

Something happens that would give a reasonable person second thoughts about the wisdom of going forward.

For instance, when college students pull up at a gas station looking for gas and directions they are berated then given directions by someone wearing worn overalls and in dire need of dental work. (A marvelous twist is put on this trope by Tucker and Dale Versus Evil.)

Break into act two: the protagonist makes a choice

It seems to me that the break into act two occurs when the protagonist willfully ignores the warning. And that's the key word, it must be an act of will, the hero must choose to ignore the warning. At least, ordinarily. I'm sure there are horror movies that violate this rule. 

Ordinarily, act two begins when the hero accepts the quest. I guess one way of looking at this is to say that, in a horror story, by ignoring the warning, the hero tacitly accepts the quest.

Initial problem is either solved or changed

Almost immediately upon entering act two the problem changes.

This is another difference from the normal story structure. Usually the problem changes, then the hero accepts the quest.  It seems that in a horror often the hero ignores the warning and then either fulfills their initial goal or the initial goal changes.

For example, in The Cabin, the college students ignore the (implicit) warning and then complete their initial goal of finding the cabin. The cabin, and the area around the cabin, is the Special World of the adventure. At this point they begin exploring the cabin and try to figure out what kind of a place it is.

Other examples: The mother realizes that her kids are missing. Her goal is no longer to find where they're hiding. She knows they're gone. Now her goal is to find out who took her kids and get them back.

Fake solution

Often there is a fake solution. Something happens, an event, and the protagonist feels either that the problem has been solved, or that someone else more skilled/competent is there to handle the crisis.

For example, the mother can't find her children so she calls the police. A suspiciously short time later a police officer arrives, someone she knows, someone who can take care of everything.

Fake villain

Often when there's a fake solution, the protagonist--perhaps with the help of the real villain--begins to suspect one of her friends/allies. The fake threat is contained and the protagonist relaxes. Not long afterward, the real killer reveals himself/herself. Often they reveal themselves by slipping up in some way, for instance revealing information they shouldn't have had, or that only the killer could have had.


Protagonist and antagonist/villain fight. Usually the protagonist will win, but in a horror that often doesn't happen, not only does the protagonist lose, but their fate is worse than we ever could have imagined.

Don't forget to include a few red shirts which die in horrible, grizzly, so-gross-you-can't-watch ways.

10 Steps To Writing A Horror Screenplay

There are many ways of structuring a horror story.

In Henrik Holmberg's excellent blog post, Horror Movie Scripts - 10 Steps To Writing A Horror Screenplay, he approaches things a bit differently and gives 10 stages. He writes:
A horror movie has certain rules. If you break too many the audience will be disappointed.

This is a very short, no fluff, blueprint of how to write a horror script.
  1. The Hook. Start with a bang. Step right into a suspense scene. ("Scream" opens with a terrifying sequence with Drew Barrymore on the phone with a killer)

  2. The Flaw. Introduce your hero. Give him a flaw. Before you can put your hero in jeopardy we must care for him. We must want our hero to succeed. So make him human. (In "Signs" Mel Gibson plays a priest who has lost his faith after his wife died)

  3. The Fear. A variant of The Flaw. The hero has a fear. Maybe a fear of heights, or claustrophobia. (In "Jaws" Roy Scheider has a fear of water. At the end he has to conquer his fear by going out onto the ocean to kill the shark)

  4. No Escape. Have your hero at an isolated location where he can't escape the horror. (Like the hotel in "The Shining")

  5. Foreplay. Tease the audience. Make them jump at scenes that appear scary -- but turn out to be completely normal. (Like the cat jumping out of the closet) Give them some more foreplay before bringing in the real monster.

  6. Evil Attacks. A couple of times during the middle of the script show how evil the monster can be -- as it attacks its victims.

  7. Investigation. The hero investigates, and finds out the truth behind the horror.

  8. Showdown. The final confrontation. The hero has to face both his fear and the monster. The hero uses his brain, rather than muscles, to outsmart the monster. (At the end of "The Village" the blind girl tricks the monster to fall into the hole in the ground)

  9. Aftermath. Everything's back to the way it was from the beginning -- but the hero has changed for the better or for the worse. (At the end of "Signs" Mel Gibson puts on his clerical collar again -- he got his faith back)

  10. Evil Lurks. We see evidence that the monster may return the future..(Almost all "Friday The 13'th"-movies end with Jason showing signs of returning for another sequel)
Here's another helpful article on the structure of a horror story: An introduction to horror films.

What are you waiting for? Go forth and write a hair-raising, blood-curdling, horror story that would terrify Freddy Krueger.

Have you ever written a horror story? If you have any tips/tricks please share!

Photo credit: "Solitude standing..." by josef.stuefer under Creative Commons attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, December 25

Merry Christmas! Giving Your Stories As Gifts

Merry Christmas! Giving Your Stories As Gifts

I slept in this morning, it was glorious!

That was followed by an exchange of gifts and, of course, the consumption of ungodly amounts of delicious melt-in-your-mouth chocolate.

And there was talk. Talk of Christmases when we were kids, and that got me thinking about gift-giving.

Have any of you written a story as a Christmas gift?

I have. Sometimes it turned out well, sometimes not so well (read: spectacularly terrible). It turns out sometimes folks like tangible gifts and don't see the value in several pages of paper covered in ink. (Note to self: Horror stories are NOT appropriate for the holidays!)

But that's okay. Sometimes the pleasure of the gift is in the giving, or the creating, and I find this especially true for stories.

If you haven't given a story as a gift I should warn you. In my experience it works best if you do both. Get the recipient of your generosity the best gift you can afford--even if that turns out to be a candy bar from the local 7-Eleven--in addition to your story.

If they like the story, great! And if not, they have another gift even if it isn't a lavish one. Hopefully they'll be of a mind that it's the thought that counts.

I'm curious, have any of you written stories for friends or family? How'd it turn out?

Merry Christmas!

Other articles you might like:

- Writing And Publishing in 2013: How To Survive And Thrive
- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- Christmas Eve And Lee Child's Jack Reacher

Photo credit: "Marry Christmas to all of you!" by rennes.i under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, December 14

The Structure Of Short Stories

The Structure Of Short Stories

The Structure Of A Short Story

I've been thinking about short stories lately; specifically, about how to structure them. I'd like to write an article that makes it easier for a new writer to create a decent short story right off the bat, the kind of article that might have helped accelerate my learning curve when I was starting out.

(Grin) I guess everyone's gotta have a goal! We'll see how this goes.

A Caveat: Use what works for you

Let me digress for a moment. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't many fine articles out there written by folks much more capable than myself. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut's article How to write with style. But everyone is unique, everyone has a different perspective. Perhaps you and I will be similar enough that my take on things will strike a cord with you. If so, great!

I'm not saying this structure, or any structure, is for everyone. If you like it and it works for you, great! If it doesn't, that's fine. (smile) Use what works for you.

The Roadmap

I've been working on a post on short story structure for the past few days but it keeps growing and, today, I realized I'm going to have to do this in parts. In this post I want to talk about what we need to bring to the table before we start building the structure of our story, before we start talking about hooks and pinches, midpoints and resolutions.

In the next post in this series I'll discuss how to condense the essential ideas in your short story down so they can be expressed in one, or a few, lines. The post after that we'll start talking about Dan Wells 7-Point system for short stories.

Another caveat: If you have an idea and it's bursting to get out, write it! You don't need me, or anyone, to tell you how to express your creativity. This structure is mainly for folks who have an idea curled at the back of their minds like a shy kitten. They know it's there, they know it wants to come out and play, but they can't quite coax it from its hiding spot.

Preparing To Write A Short Story

Before we start talking about story structure (hooks, turning points, pinches, resolutions, and so on) there are a few things we should decide on. Things such as:

1. The basic idea your story is about

What is the setting?

Time: Where are we in time? Is it the present? The past? The future?
Place: What geographic location are you going to use? (New York? LA? Toronto? Etc) Are you going to create your world or use this one?
Mood/Atmosphere: What feeling do you want to create at the beginning? Bright and cheerful? Dark and frightening? Is this going to change by the end? (See: Short Story Elements)
Social milieu: How does the social milieu shape your character's values? What cultures are you going to include? (Setting, Wikipedia)

What is the major conflict?

There are various kinds of conflicts:

- person against person,
- person against society,
- person against nature and
- person against self.

The protagonist often has both an internal and external conflict, so person against person (the antagonist) and person against self (the internal struggle) are the most common forms of conflict found in stories, at least genre stories which are the kind I am focusing on. (See: Conflict, Wikipedia)

For instance, in The Firm, Mitch McDeere has the outer goal of becoming a wealthy lawyer and the inner goal of shedding the negative emotions he has concerning his childhood (well, at first, he just wants to run away and ignore them). His external goal changes throughout the movie, as does how he approaches his inner goal. The obstacles/opposition to these goals creates conflict.

You don't have to have an inner conflict and in a short story you might find it too much to fit in, especially if you're a new writer.

A good strong external conflict (external goal + opposition) is an absolute must. It is the engine that will drive your story forward.

2. List your characters

This is a short story so you probably want to keep the number of characters to the bare minimum you need to tell the story.

You'll have a protagonist, an antagonist and one or both of them might have a helper. Also, the protagonist might have a mentor and there might be some sort of shady character trying to keep the protagonist from leaving the status quo/ordinary world.

Keep in mind that the same character could fill more than one role. For instance, the antagonist could corrupt the mentor and the mentor could act as the shadow-y character keeping the antagonist from crossing the threshold into the special world, the land of adventure. (See: Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction)

Character Sheets

I love character sheets! I gave this link in the article, below (Before You Start Writing ...) but I'll give it here as well: Character Brainstorming Worksheet. That's, hands down, the best character sheet I've seen in a long time!

Update (Dec 14, 2012): Thanks to Sam Hunt over at Dark-Fantasy Writers I just learnt about Seventh Sanctum. They have a great character generator over there, best I've seen. Fun to play around with (well, if you're a geek like me).

Test Your Characters

Martina Boone came up with a brilliant idea: Test your characters before you write them into your story to make sure they're strong enough. If this is something you'd like to read about I'll direct you here: Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?

3. Who is your point of view (POV) character?

If you're going to write in third person omniscient or third person objective then you don't have to choose just one, but chances are you won't be writing from the these points of view. Usually your protagonist will be your POV character.

That said, there are notable exceptions. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlocke Holmes stories from the point of view of Watson but Sherlock Holmes was his protagonist.

Sometimes you may want to have two POV characters. For instance, often in romance stories one POV character is the girl the other the guy and the POV shifts between chapters. (Or girl/girl or guy/guy depending on the story you're writing.) If you're a new writer, or you want to write a story under 2,000 words, I'd suggest you pick just one.

4. Are you going to write in first, second or third person?

I'm not going to talk about narrative points of view. Wikipedia has a wonderful write up about each one, with examples galore: Narrative mode. If you're at all fuzzy about what first person, second person, third person subjective, third person objective and third person omniscient are please do head on over to Wikipedia and brush up. I know I have to read the definitions again every few years!

Sometimes the narrative point of view you choose will be (in part) determined by the genre you're writing for. For instance, most urban fantasy is written in the first person (See: Urban Fantasy: Threat or Menace? - The Story Board Ep. 1). Second person is popular only in special areas, for instance recipes, songs, blog posts, and so on. If you are like the majority of authors (why do I feel like I've just given someone a challenge? lol) you'll likely end up choosing between first person and third person subjective (also called third person limited).

5. A description of your story

This is something I always do. I've never read anyone else say to do this, so use this at your own risk!

Eventually (we'll talk about this in the next post in this series) we'll go over writing a one liner, or tag-line for your story. But lets not worry about that yet. Right now I'd like to you to write out what your story is about, all those ideas that have been purcolating in your noggin as we've been doing all this preparation work.

Go and write it out. That's okay. I'll wait.

Back? Good!

Okay. Your description might be 5 pages long or just a list of ideas (or you might have nothing at all), it's all good, but now you need to take what you've written and hone your story down to its essentials.

6. The one-liner/tag line

I'm going to break off here. Tomorrow I'll write about how to condense your story down to its essential elements and express them in one line.

Or at least that's the goal! See you next time.

Update: Here's a link to the next article in this series: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.

How about you? Do you use a story structure when you write? What is your process?

Other articles you might like:

- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?
- How To Write A Twitter Story
- Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Photo credit: "Моя Мелочь:) | My Meloch:)" by eXage under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 4

Query Tracker: Keep Track Of Your Stories

Query Tracker: Keep Track Of Your Stories

Robert Heinlein told writers to put their stories on the market and to keep them there until they sell, but he didn't tell us how to keep track of them.

Unfortunately it can take many, many, mailings before a story finds its home and it would be embarrassing, to say the least, if a writer sent his or her masterpiece to the same place twice!

This is where comes in:
Find Literary Agents & Publishers
- Use our extensive database search tools to locate the perfect agent or publisher for your work.
- Watch a demonstration video.

Organize and Track Your Query Letters
- Keep track of your query letters using the most advanced tracking system available on the web.
- Watch a demonstration video.

View Statistics about Agents and Publishers
- Our database allows information to be collected and shared. This gives access to useful statistical information about literary agents and publishers.
And, amazingly, it's free!

I wondered about this--how can this service be free? Here's the explanation given:
Why is QueryTracker free? QueryTracker is free because it is our goal to collect as much data as possible about query letter results.

To do that, we need as many members as possible to submit their data, and the best way to do that is to make it free.
One of my writing friends recommended QueryTracker to me. She uses it and swears by it, so I'm going to give it a try. If you use it, let me know what you think! Cheers.

Happy 4th of July!

Related reading:
- 6 Rules of Writing from John Steinbeck
- Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments
- 7 Tips On How To Get Your Guest Post Accepted

Photo credit: "Punctuation marks made of puzzle pieces" by Horia Varlan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, June 20

10 Reasons Why Stories Get Rejected

why stories get rejected

It's always nice to learn why a story was rejected and, although it hurts, the greater the detail the better. David Farland's latest article gives 10 reasons why he rejects stories. I'm just going to summarize them (well, that was my plan), so I recommend you read his article for the details.

1) The story is unintelligible.

2) The story is unbelievable.

3) Too many adverbs and adjectives.
I hadn't meant to comment on these, but I can't resist. The first time I heard someone say that, as a general rule, a writer should avoid using adverbs, especially those that ended in -ly, I thought they were daft. (And yes, I'm painfully aware of the -ly adverb I just used, but I think it adds something to the sentence that goes toward my point so I'm keeping it. Isn't irony grand?) It took reading Stephen King's book, On Writing, for me to see the wisdom in this.

If it helps, think of it this way: Instead of using -ly adverbs, use strong verbs. Rather than making a word more interesting, or more meaningful, by modifying it with another word, try making the word itself everything you need.

For instance, rather than writing,

a) "I won the lottery," she said happily.


b) Waving her lottery ticket above her head, she jumped up in the air and screamed, "I won the lottery!"

I think that the advice to steer clear of -ly adverbs goes hand-in-hand with the advice to show rather than tell. I don't think the above example is very good, but hopefully it is enough to give you the sense of what I mean. For the purposes of the example, I should have used one strong verb rather than the adverb ("happily"), but perhaps you can suggest something better in the comments.

Also, there is a change in tone between (a) and (b). I think that (b) hints at the speaker being an extravert and fond of screaming, especially at concerts.

In any case, moving along.

4)   Nothing happens.
Make something happen and make it happen earlier rather than later. Try to grab the reader with your first sentence and don't let them go until the last one. I'm sure there are many names for this quality of can't-put-it-down-edness but I think of it as narrative drive.

5) Don't confuse your readers.
You may know the story takes place on the 5th moon of Dovan, but your readers won't unless you tell them. After a while folks are going to stop guessing, get irritated, and find something else to do.

6) Remove the boring bits.
I can't remember who said this first, but it's true. If it doesn't absolutely have to be in your story toss it. Ask yourself: does this further the story? If yes, fine. If no, lose it.

As David Farland says, this also applies to writing sentences like, "They shook on it," rather than, "They shook hands on it." If it's clear from the context that what they're shaking are hands (rather than, say, flippers), then you don't have to include that information. If, on the other hand, the "they" in question are squid-like personages living on the dark side of our moon then you might want to specify which appendages they used.

7) Have a story and tell it.
If a piece of writing is, say, 2,500 words long and has a title that doesn't mean it's a story.

Although there are no rules for what makes a story a story--including the rule that says there are no rules--people who judge story contests generally appreciate it if there is a beginning and an end. You get bonus points if there are characters things happen to and if these events put your hero in danger of not reaching their goal. I've written a bit about story telling here.

8) Don't cheat
I'm not talking about plagiarism (but don't plagiarise), I'm talking about including something like violence or sex when it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. To be clear, I'm not saying anything for or against using sex or violence in your stories, but everything in your story, everything, has to be there for a reason and if that reason is simply to shock or titillate then your story will be weaker for it.

8b) Understand your market
Let's say you're writing a paranormal romance. Including a scene in which a character has something done to them worthy of the movie Saw means you run the risk of alienating the editor who will make the decision whether to buy your work.

9) Non-formed stories.
See point 7, above: Have a story and tell it.

10) Don't irritate your readers
This is in the same vein as 5, above: Don't confuse your readers. For instance, although I don't believe there are hard-and-fast rules about how many points of view your story should be told from, if you have 5 in 2,500 words you'll confuse your readers.

Dave Farland gives the following example: "John raced out the door, after brushing his teeth." After I read this sentence I parsed it as, "After brushing his teeth, john raced out the door." If a story was filled with sentences like that I would become irritated.

To read the rest of David Farland's awesome article (alliteration can, occasionally, be tolerated ;) click here: Ten Reasons Why I'll Quickly Reject Your Story.

This ends the list of 10 things which will will send your story to the proverbial dust bin of obscurity, but of course (and unfortunately), there are far more than ten. But take heart, Mr. Farland has just published the next article in this series: Why Editors Reject Your Story. In that post he discusses what separates stories which receive honorable mention from stories that win.


Related reading:
- The Starburst Method: How to write a story, from one-liner to first draft
- Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story
- How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher

Photo credit: A Writer's Journey

"10 Reasons Why Stories Get Rejected," copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.