Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Monday, April 12

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude



This post continues my mini-series about how to introduce a character. I’ve already written about Exaggeration, Unusual Position and introducing characters in Action. 

Today I’m covering Verisimilitude and later this week--I’m aiming for Thursday--I’ll close the series off by writing about Empathy. Here are links to my previous posts in this mini-series:

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Characteristic Entry Action

(Here is an index to all the blog posts in my soon-to-be written book: How to Write a Genre Story)

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude. No, that’s not an exotic disease.

If a character has verisimilitude then they act believably which means that they act in a way that is consistent with who they are, with their core attributes. By the way, I’m getting much this information from Jim Butcher and his wonderful article, Characters. Jim Butcher calls verisimilitude the “V-factor.” 

He writes:

“The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistent and believable manner.”

As an example, Butcher mentions Jar Jar Binks. As you likely know, Jar Jar was first introduced in the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. 

It seems as though the character of Jar Jar checked most of the right boxes. He definitely had exaggerated and unusual traits and he was introduced in a way that helped make him memorable. But then WHY were Star Wars fans' reactions to him so mixed? Jim Butcher thinks that it is because, at least in part, Jar Jar didn’t have a consistent and believable manner. To paraphrase Butcher, the V-force was not with him. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

How to give a character verisimilitude

I think there are two things that make a character feel real.

First, as we have seen throughout this mini-series, you give the character tags and traits that illustrate who they are. Further you make at least one or two of these traits exaggerated, unusual. 

Second, a character’s V-factor has to do with HOW you communicate a character’s emotional reactions. That’s what Jim Butcher focuses on and that’s what I’ll talk about, below. Here I just want to note that if this sounds similar to the pattern of a sequel, I would agree. This is the very same pattern. And it is enormously important.

Think of when you’ve encountered a sudden setback. What happens? Well, myself, I’m hit with a wall of pure, raw emotion. There’s no thought, not yet. It’s sort of like when I touch a hot stove (and, yes, I have been that idiotic, ‘Gee, I wonder if it’s hot yet.’) My hand started to move away from the burner before I felt the pain. Then I had a reaction which was, “Wow, touching a hot burner was a really bad idea.” Finally I made the decision to not do that again.

That’s perhaps a silly example but think of any sudden, negative, shock you’ve had. A significant other suddenly breaking up with you, hearing that you’ve been betrayed, and so on. Human beings have a reaction to those sort of things and it happens in a particular order. If that order isn’t right your readers probably won’t notice it but, still, it won’t FEEL right to them.

So. Jim Butcher lays out the three stages:

1. Emotions
2. Reactions
3. Decisions

In one of Jack Bickham's books he gives an example of a person coming home from work and, as they usually do, he calls out, “Honey I’m home!” But he is met with the silence of an empty house. Puzzled he looks around and spots a piece of paper on the hall table. He walks over and looks at it.

It’s a note from his wife. She tells him that she has been having an affair with the grocer for the past year and that she has left him.

What is his first reaction? EMOTION. A wave of emotion, of pain and regret. He’s not thinking about anything. There’s a chair nearby and he slumps into it because he doesn’t want to fall down. 

Then he REACTS. Then he’s angry. How could she? How could she lie to him like that? How could she betray him, deceive him? She had told him she loved him, and all that time…

But what should he do? He could try to get her back, try to track them down. He could hire a private detective to find them. Perhaps the grocer had pressured her, perhaps he had blackmailed her. Even if not, perhaps he could win her back. But does he really want to do that? Perhaps he should let her go her own way. 

The man presses bloodless lips together and makes a DECISION. To hell with her. He will scrub her from his life, from his memory, from his heart.

You see the pattern. If we had the decision before the emotion, it wouldn’t be credible or if the man had the reaction after the decision that wouldn’t make sense. You might be thinking, “Well, yeah… Did you really have to tell anyone that? Isn’t it obvious?” And, sure. On one level it is, but it is something that writers can get wrong and then the character doesn’t feel real.

Summary

When an event important to your character occurs, have your character react to it in a way that makes sense (see above) AND in a way that makes sense for them, that is true to their core characteristics. Those two considerations are equally important.

Well! That’s it for today. I’m trying to keep to a schedule of putting out a blog post on Monday and publishing my interview with a marvelously interesting writer on my YouTube channel on Tuesday. Tomorrow I will upload my chat with a singularly fascinating individual, Lydia Moore.

I hope you have a wonderful week, I'll talk to you again on Thursday. Good writing!

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Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, March 25

How to Write a Genre Story: A Character's Dominant Attitude



I’ve already gone over Swain’s idea of a character’s dominant impression, now let’s talk about their dominant attitude.

A character’s attitude

“Attitude is a matter of behavior patterns—a character’s habitual way of reacting to a particular kind of situation. Mary Poppins’s eternal cheeriness reflects an attitude, and so does Rambo’s macho stance.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain) 

Other examples of attitudes: sanctimony, ingrained suspicion, anxiety, discontent, and so on.

Like flesh and blood people, a character has more than one attitude. For example, a character can be both cheerful (like Mary Poppins) and sanctimonious, though at any one time one attitude will be stronger than the other. Overall, though, the character will have one attitude, aptly named the ‘dominant attitude’ that defines the character more than any other. I’ll go over a character's dominant attitude in a moment, but before I do let’s look at some examples.

Examples

I was at a party the other day and fell into conversation with someone I knew slightly. This wasn't the first time we'd met, but it was the first time we had a chance to exchange more than awkward pleasantries.

After a minute or so my impression of him was fixed: he was not a person who suffered fools gladly. It was an observation that didn't set me at ease since I was keenly aware that what constitutes a fool in someone's mind can be distressingly relative. Anyway, if he was a character I was writing, that would be his dominant attitude.

Keep in mind that our characters are pseudo-people and so tend to have less subtlety than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. For example, if a character's primary attitude is fearfulness, then that trait, that quality, will find a way to insinuate itself into everything that character does. 

Example 1: Mr. Midgley

If a character--Mr. Midgley--is, say, irascible then he might snap at other characters over minor slights or inconveniences. As a response to this, other characters might gossip about him. This character’s house would be the one school children are gently but firmly steered away from on Halloween. 

An irascible character can be kind or considerate, but there would have to be a reason. It would require an explanation. For example, perhaps one of the neighborhood children--Sarah--reminds him of his estranged daughter and so he has a soft spot for the child. He's sentimental. It's his daughter’s birthday so he bakes his daughter's favorite cookies--chocolate chip with extra chips. Then he sees Sarah creep hesitantly, fearfully, onto his back lawn to retrieve a baseball that has landed in his flowerbed. Something about the sight makes it hard for him to swallow and he wipes his eyes with a tissue. Rather than bawl her out for trespassing he goes out and gives the child a cookie. An unlikely friendship is forged.

Example 2: Monica Geller from Friends

Here's another example, this time from the TV show Friends. I would say that Monica Geller's primary attitude was obsessive compulsiveness when it came to cleaning. Informally, we would call her a neat freak. Everything had to be just so or she'd clean and scrub and rearrange until it was. Monica didn't need a reason to clean, no explanation was required. If she didn't clean up a mess, THAT would require an explanation.

Example 3: Mr. Monk

One last example: Mr. Monk from the TV show Monk. I would say that Mr. Monk's primary attitude was fearfulness. 

Mr. Monk was obsessive compulsive and he had an uncanny knack to remember even the most minute, irrelevant detail about his environment. He was also scared of just about everything. Even milk. Milk! One reason that show was a success was that, in practically every scene, the screenwriters demonstrated Monk's primary characteristic--fearfulness--and tied everything else to it. Then, at the end of nearly every show, the writers had Monk do something that for him was courageous. He had goals he was driven to attain--becoming a detective again, figuring out who killed his wife, protecting a friend--and was temporarily able to overcome his many fears. So, really, the most terrified man in the world was courageous.

Once you've picked a character's dominant attitude it should be reflected in some way in nearly every scene.

The Dominant Attitude

Dwight V. Swain writes, “...you’ll need to become aware of the special areas of mind and thought that your story brings into focus.

“You can do worse than to term this collective pattern your character’s dominant attitude.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

“Thus, in a romance, Female Lead’s dominant attitude very well may center on the way she sees—and, in action, reacts to and behaves towards—men. Are they dominating bullies, like her boss? Frail reeds, in the manner of her hopeless, helpless uncle? Eternal womanizers...? [Are they] [s]hadow images of her boastful, bragging brother?…. Stalwart partners for a lifetime of warmth and peace? (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

In a science fiction story the dominant attitude of the protagonist might be one of ingrained suspicion. In keeping with this attitude he might believe that the human race is doomed to extinction at the hands of an alien race. He feels/thinks that, because of the aliens’ technological superiority, that our only hope is to ‘acquire’ their technology before they have the opportunity to crush us.

In a suspense novel, perhaps the protagonist’s dominant attitude is one of distrust. He looks at his fellow humans either as perpetrators--those who take advantage of others--or victims--those who are taken advantage of by others. Because of this belief he becomes withdrawn, leaves society and goes to live all by himself in the hills.

In a mainstream novel, the protagonist might have the dominant attitude of cheerfulness, she believes that there is good in everyone, even the most hardened murderer. Because of this belief she becomes a psychologist and opens a rehabilitation center for hardened criminals.

So you see the pattern. A character has an attitude which, in conjunction with a belief, contributes to the character having a goal. The conjunction of the attitude with the belief might even suggest a way of achieving the goal. 

Attitudes and beliefs

Above, I’ve mentioned a belief. 

I haven’t written much about what this belief is, where it enters into things. It seems as though the belief encompasses that character's view of what the best way to live one’s life is. Perhaps the character’s attitude stems from this belief, or perhaps the belief is a result of their attitude. Who knows!

In my last example the belief (or worldview) the protagonist had was that, "Good is in everyone," and the course of action she took based on that view was to get a degree in psychology and open a rehabilitation center.

Dominant Attitude and Theme

At some point I would like to write a blog post about a story’s theme, what it is and its importance to making a story riveting. It seems to me that a character’s dominant attitude would tie them into the theme of the story, or--to put it another way--set the theme of the story. I need to think about that some more. 

That’s it! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. 😀

Good writing. I’ll talk to you on Monday.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Monday, March 8

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus


Characters--Homo Fictus--are the raw material from which stories are created, but who are these entities who populate our stories and how do they differ from flesh-and-blood people?

Homo Fictus

Characters can be viewed as a pseudo-species of humans that differ from their flesh-and-blood counterparts in at least three respects.

1. Characters are fathomable, understandable. Humans aren't.

I'm not suggesting that great characters, outstanding characters, don't have contradictory desires or goals. All the best characters do.

One of the most interesting characters I've come across is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What are his two main drives? To take care of his family and to make is mark on the world. He wants to unleash his intellect and, no matter the consequence, show the world what he can do. 

These two desires--to provide for his family and to be remembered--often come into conflict and drive the story forward. And we easily understand this clash of motivations.

Humans, though, can be truly unfathomable. We want one thing one minute and then the opposite the next. I’ve gone into an ice cream shop with a friend convinced that regardless of what my friend wanted I was not going to buy an ice cream cone...and walked out with an ice cream cone.

Humans can be flaky, their goals can and do change on a whim and they make bad decisions in silly ways that aren't interesting. 

How well do you know your friends and neighbours? If you think you know them pretty well, think about how many times you've heard the neighbors of a serial killer say, "He seemed like such a nice man."

The key point here is not that characters shouldn't have contradictory drives or desires--they should!--it is that readers must be able to understand them. As a story progresses we need to see more of a character’s layers. Although I may revise my initial judgement about a character, by the end of the story I must feel that I understand her. Not necessarily approve or condone, but understand. I must be satisfied that the kind of choices a character made were a result of the kind of person she was.

For a character to be interesting and memorable she must be fathomable. If she isn't, the reader will become bored, turn away from the story and find something more engaging to do.

2. Characters are exceptional; most humans aren't.

Granted, not all characters are exceptional, but every character I've fallen in love with, every character that has lingered with me after the page on which they were introduced, has been. 

To understand the importance of this let's look at what Dwight V. Swain calls a trait, or a tag of attitude (for more about this read Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer). A tag of attitude is a behavioural quirk or disposition. He writes:

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes."

For example, on the show Monk, the lead--Mr. Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub--is a former police detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder whose main goals in life are to find his wife's killer and to get back on the police force. As a character, Mr. Monk is mostly unexceptional. His wardrobe is bland, his culinary tastes are bland, and his personality is bland. 

So, why did so many people--myself included--love the show? Mr. Monk is exceptional in two ways: he is fanatical about cleanliness (as well as orderliness) and he is the best detective in the world. His core skill (or trait/tag of attitude) is that he notices absolutely everything in his environment regardless of whether it's important, something that is both (and this is Mr. Monk’s catchphrase) a gift and a curse.

3. Humans are infinitely complex, characters aren't.

Fictional human beings are simpler and more goal-oriented than ordinary flesh-and-blood people. As E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel:

"But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are im­perfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy be­ing one of the conditions of life upon this globe."

I used to have a gal pal I went to go see movies with, I'll call her Rachel. In general, we had the same taste in movies. After awhile we got to know each other well. I could tell which parts of a movie she'd find funny, which parts she'd roll her eyes at, which parts would make her cry, and so on. 

But she continually surprised me. Occasionally, she wouldn't laugh at something I thought she'd think was hilarious or she thought the hero who sacrificed it all for his true love was an idiot, or...well, you get the idea. No matter how well I think I know someone they can surprise me. But this isn't true of a character. 

If a character surprises us--for instance when I learnt Keyser Söze's true identity at the end of the movie The Usual Suspects--I looked back through the movie and realized that I'd missed, or misunderstood, quite a few things. The ending made perfect sense. If it hadn't then it wouldn't have been a good ending. In real life, though, endings often don't make a great deal of sense but, hey, that's why we tell ourselves stories! ;)

-- --

Humans are complex. We do unexpected things with unsatisfying results in ways that make little or no sense. That's boring. Or maddening. Often both. Compared to humans, our characters are blessedly simple. They have fewer desires, fewer goals, and the needs they have are more exaggerated and more intense than yours or mine. 

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Sunday, February 7

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)


This post is a continuation of yesterday's post BUT in what follows I don't talk about horror stories. Alas. Horror stories are very fun to talk about--or even to write about. Here I go on about the various wonderful ways in which your setting can affect your story.

2. Setting And Character

I've already written about the importance of the social environment of the story for character development (see the links at the end of this article), and given that we are social critters, it’s obvious that it would be significant, but I want to step back for a minute and ask what will at first seem like a silly question: Why? 

Why is it the case that the social environment is so important for character development? It is the social environment, the society, that sets the rules for what counts as acceptable conduct. The society sets up the specific expectations for your character, how they should act, who they should love, what profession they should study, and so on. The social environment sets up what the society thinks the character’s goals should be, it sets up the default value structure. 

(And this is one reason that the first five or ten percent of a story is so important, because you’re setting up these background conditions, conditions that everything else in your story will contrast against.)

Of course your character will depart in various ways from what is expected of them, and that’s good. That creates conflict. However, everything depends upon making it clear what values your hero is departing from.

Shared Customs

As Dwight V. Swain says in his excellent book, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People, shared customs (customs such as which clothes are acceptable for which occasions) and appropriate behaviors (for example, how to behave in a church as opposed to a temple as opposed to a mosque as opposed to a synagog as opposed to...) are just the sort of things that breathe life into, and that differentiate, characters.

When developing a character I ask myself what social rules and practises, what rituals and traditions, this character follows.

Another thing I try to pay attention to when creating a character is the distinction between knowing a social custom and following it. Perhaps a character knows that Custom A is mandatory, but do they follow it? Perhaps they follow it in public but not in private. Perhaps if they are given an opportunity to depart from the norm, they will. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, that says something about them.

3. Setting And The Senses

In the classic movie Die Hard, the initial setting was a Christmas Party, in Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the initial settings was a long abandoned ancient temple. The particular setting of your story is essential to bringing the world to life. How do things come to life for us? What makes us pay particular attention to something? 

In a word, vividness. 

Everything, of course, comes to us through our senses--smell, taste, sight, touch or hearing--and then is stitched together, somehow, to create our own personal version of this wonderful world in which we live. For us to pay attention to one particular thing, for it to be memorable, it must stand out from the rest.

As Dwight V. Swain writes in Creating Characters, our world is made of hot, sticky, ashvalut and looming, grey skyscrapers, barking dogs and purring cats with bottomless copper eyes; it's made of cheese so pungent it will make your eyes water, and hot bitter coffee, fresh squeezed apple juice, and hot sticky cinnamon buns. It's made of the comforting weight of linen and the harsh blare of car horns. 

Sensory impressions bring a story to life, immersing readers in the story world, wrapping it around them, drawing them ever deeper into the fantasy you're weaving. Swain writes that "the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted" are how we spin a world into being. So, what is the takeaway? Make your images vivid.

4. Setting and Conflict

Conflict isn’t everything, but if you don’t have conflict you don’t have a story. 

Conflit is what results when a character's efforts to attain a goal are opposed or frustrated. What sorts of things oppose a character's efforts to attain their goal? Quite a few. Another character, sure. Often it is that character themselves! But many times what opposes a character's efforts to attain their goal is the setting itself. 

For instance, perhaps your protagonist, Hank, is a teenager and his goal is to win the prestigious Sunnyside Surfing Competition but he can't win unless he trains. That’s a problem because Hank's family recently moved from the sunny, sandy beaches of Sunnyside California to the snowy confines of Montreal Canada and it's the middle of December. That means Hank can’t surf, so he can’t train for the competition. So he’s not going to win. Here just a change of setting sets up a problem, an obstacle to the protagonist reaching his goal.

Increasing Conflict

Have you ever watched the television show, Monk? The screenwriters were fabulous at using setting to introduce conflict. Here’s the description of the show from IMDB:

“The series follows Adrian Monk, a brilliant former San Francisco detective, who now consults the police as a private consultant who battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

For example, in Mr. Monk and the Psychic (season 1, episode 3) Monk is introduced to the police commissioner, someone he needs to impress since he wants to get back on the police force.

Monk wants to convince the commissioner that he has his OCD under control. But, Monk is Monk. He is unique. In one scene the commissioner has a few crumbs on his jacket. That’s the setting. Monk is compulsive about cleaning and really wants to brush the crumbs off the commissioner's jacket but he knows that would seem odd to the commissioner and if he seems odd then he won’t get his job back.

What does Monk do? Does he sacrifice his chance to get back on the police force so that he can brush the crumbs of the commissioner’s jacket? Of course he does! And what happens because of this? Conflict.

Here's another example, one you've probably seen countless times in movies and on TV. Two characters are sitting at a table. Perhaps it is a job interview or perhaps it is a first date. The general idea is that it is a situation in which one of them is trying to impress the other. Then a server walks by, stumbles, and spills scalding coffee into the character’s lap who most wants to impress the other. 

How will they react? Will they jump up and yell at the server? Will they be gracious and downplay the incident? Will they turn the incident into a joke and make the other character laugh? How that character handles this situation, this conflict, will help reveal what kind of a person they are.

These are just a few of the ways in which the setting can be used to introduce or increase conflict. The way I think of it, characters are not created to populate a world, a world is created to, as John Truby wrote in The Anatomy of Story, "express and manifest your characters, especially your hero."

And that’s it for today! Thanks for reading, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

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

‘No, Daddy.’

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

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

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

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but keep in mind that the story world (unlike the real one!) needs to be consistent. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

Social Setting

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time-consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, rules both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time

What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place

Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there water nearby? A pond? A sea? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

I've touched on some of this information above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it invoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into twilight? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes making the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Does the unbearable heat of the sun bake everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? 

While an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it. Setting can be used to develop character. Before we examine that, though, let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.

Conflict

I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world is like, is conflict. Political parties contend with each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices and which social institutions do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge

Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story?
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season, or seasons, does the story take place?
- How much time elapses during the story?
- What is the geography of the story world like?
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another?
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

A Thought Experiment

Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Society A--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Society B--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Society A despise Society B. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Society B destroying its food reserves. Many in Society B accuse Society A of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Society B gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Society B do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Society A do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Society B who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Society A had defeated. But will he be believed?

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy a lottery ticket! 

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters, especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter


Blog posts you might like:

Friday, January 22

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense

Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense


Let’s talk about what suspense is. Sure, yes, we know what it is in a “I know it when I feel it” kind of way, but if we want our stories to create suspense in our readers, it would be helpful to have a definition. 

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." [1] 

I will look at two ways of creating suspense. First, the author might get a reader to ask a question without immediately answering it. We’re human, and once we have an interesting puzzle we find it difficult to NOT try to solve it. Second--and this is really just a more specific way of creating a question in the reader’s mind--the author might give the reader either more or less information than the hero. Let’s look at each of these techniques in turn. 

Ask a Question but Withhold the Answer

Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer. He believes that humans are wired to want the answer to a question they don't know the answer to. 

Want viewers to stick around during a commercial break? Ask them a question before the break and answer it when the break is over. This is Child's explanation for his view that “The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end." [2]

Child also talks about his technique in his New York Times article, "A Simple Way to Create Suspense." [3] 

"As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.... Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked."

"Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need. Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer."

Dramatic Irony and Suspense

In order to understand how to create and build suspense we need to understand dramatic irony. Why? Because dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's (and in this case our reader is our audience) sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

An Example

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly monster creeping up behind him, poised to strike.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path but now there is no deadly threat stalking him. Instead, he is anticipating a threat just around the bend. He doesn’t know a monster is there, but he thinks one could be. 

The first scenario creates suspense by giving the audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario we, the audience, know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

That was a quick overview. I go over these points again, below.

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony

Surface meaning versus underlying meaning

Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. In other words, dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will go deeper.

Let's look at the possibilities.

The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.

Tension can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, its eerie illumination playing over his face. For a moment Vega seems lost in whatever he sees. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vega and his partner, Jules Winnfield, do. Vega is looking right at it but, damn him, he's not telling! 

The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.

I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the science fiction and horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters, Brett, searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline. 

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery and spots the cat. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind Brett. Jones sees this, hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind him. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you grip the cushion you have a stranglehold on even tighter and scream: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett turns around but it's too late. He becomes monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony the implications of a situation, speech, and so on, are understood by the audience but not by at least one of the characters in the drama. In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

Unwise Behavior

When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," not so much.

Summary

To summarize, suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear of a certain ending. Part of the reason this is effective is because it asks a question, “Will the hero survive?” and makes you wait for an answer. Lee Child has spoken quite a bit about this way of creating suspense. Dramatic irony is another way of creating suspense and it occurs when there is an incongruity between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case. 

Notes

1. For more on this see the Google+ Hangout Libby Hellman hosted, "Secrets To Writing Top Suspense."
2. Lee Child was quoted having said this in an article about Thrillerfest, but I can't find the reference.
3. "A Simple Way to Create Suspense," by Lee Child (2012)

Photo Credit

Indiana Jones and the Mountain of Rocks, by JD Hancock. I altered the image to create a greater contrast with the text. I highly recommend dropping by JD Hancock's website and viewing his many, fascinating creations.

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Monday, October 19

Writing: A Support System for Life

"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King

What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?

King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen. 

King writes,

“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere. 

By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: to be better today than I was yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)

What is writing?

In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.

Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing? 

Writing as manipulation.

I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.

In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as Machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.

Writing is different for each of us.

As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, and loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.

King writes:

"Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)

I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am. 

In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.

So! That leads me to: 

Nine things you can do to become a better writer:


1. Read.

Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. (Stephen King, On Writing)


2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.

Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently. 

Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.

I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.


3. Edit for the world.

There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) [1]

King writes:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)


4. Backstory

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)

You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.


5. Be brutally honest

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)

Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.

And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.


6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”


7. You will have critics. Ignore them.

“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.

Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.


8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.


If you try your best to succeed at something, anything, one thing is inevitable: failure. The key to living a moderately happy life is not to let the failure paralyse you. Shug, learn what you can from the failure, and move on. If you send a story to a magazine and it isn't bought, if a book you publish sells only the one copy that you bought, accept that and move on.

"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.

"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.

Above all, don't let fear of failure stop you from doing what you love.


9. The adverb is not your friend.

Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.

For example:

a) She looked at him, puzzledly. 

b) Squinting at him, she frowned.

I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. 

The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.

Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)


That's it!

Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. 😀👋

My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren


Notes:

1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:

"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.