When Halloween rolls around, and I start sifting through my collection of scary movies and stories, I start realizing that most of our so-called scary works today fall into the secondary definition of horror, “intense aversion or repugnance,” rather than truly inducing fright.
What on earth do I mean?
Well, specifically I’m thinking of the “torture porn” movies that pervade our cinema today, and the True Blood school of horror, in which filmmakers must constantly up the ante in order to make us gasp with, well, horror.
Truly scary movies need to make me jump at small noises, not jump up to run to the toilet so that I can vomit after witnessing fountains of blood. Truly scary books need to make me so frightened I can’t close the book because the real world could be even scarier.
It’s the difference between this:
One inspires shock and a shudder, the other inspires shock and a shiver. I didn’t stay up worrying that Russell Edgington was going to come into my home and rip out my spine. Nope, I stayed up having visions of a grotesque Regan MacNeil sitting at the foot of my bed.
The Exorcist is, I think, scarier because it happens in a quiet, suburban setting. Any kid could get possessed, but I don’t think the Vampire King of Louisiana is likely to exist any time soon. That’s the trick to truly frightening people: making them fear for themselves as well as for your main characters.
What are some works of film and fiction that have truly frightened you?
I love writing the dark stuff. Some writers say it’s too much, that writing brooding, deep, dark stories makes their moods correspondingly brooding, deep, and dark. I live for the macabre, and have since I was little.
That doesn’t mean my stories are unrelenting pages of creepiness or woe, though. (It just means all the other little girls thought I was a wee bit…strange. Anyway.) There has to be balance. I like to think of my stories like the rhyme about the little girl with the curl on her forehead:
“When she was good she was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid.”
If you’re going to write in the paranormal genre, I think you should give it your all. If you want to venture into creepy territory, do it with abandon.
Enlightened, my urban fantasy which will be out in February 2013, deals with demons. I’d never written about demons before, so I broke out many a research tome (including ye olde standby, Google) to learn all I could about them.
Subsequently, I came to love them so much that I had a couple of ideas for prequels and side stories for major characters in the novels. This meant more research and more demon-creation.
People, let me tell you, I had fun. Maybe a little too much fun, because I began to have nightmares about my bad guy. In my head, he looks a bit like this:
Needless to say, sweat-soaked pajamas had to be changed. And yes, that’s the demon from Constantine. (Which, by the way, is one of my all-time favorite movies. Watch it if you’re a horror fan like me—your life will be enriched.)
If you want to write scary stuff, you have my full support. Even if you’ve never done it before, I recommend jumping in with both feet. Read some of the masters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Shirley Jackson, but don’t be afraid to take risks and really make the ghouls your own. Once you set foot into el creepo territory, you’ll never look back.
For those that follow this blog, you know that the Spellbound Scribes is home to authors of the paranormal genre. But I like horror. I write horror. It will always be my favorite genre.
It’s a take it or leave it kind of genre, whether it be books or movies. You either love it or hate it. People are often surprised to hear I’m a horror buff. And why wouldn’t I be? It’s one of the few genres that sticks with you well after you’ve left the story (don’t tell me you haven’t checked the behind the bathroom curtain or under the bed after reading a scary book or watching a horror flick).
Often times, horror is all about perception: what we perceive to be scary. Clowns have a bad rap (thanks to Poltergeist, Stephen King’s IT,andJohn Wayne Gacy) and have gone from being children’s entertainment, to just plain terrifying.
So while I have a sci-fi/parnarnormal YA series, I’ve also written several horror shorts that have been published in various anthologies. I recently published a collection of those short stories, unDead Dixie Debs, which has everything from zombies to vampires, all in the tradition of classic southern gothic horror.
And this fall, I am proud to be part of Coffin Hop 2012. There’ll be tons of writers, giveaways, and good old fashioned B-rated drive-in horror, so don’t forget to check it out! Seriously, this is one blog hop you don’t want to miss.
I’ll even have a story in the upcoming Coffin Hop anthology (will be released 2013)!! I think this is one of my best stories to date (if I do say so myself), as it’s gritty, horrific, and just plain fun….And features chupacabras, a strip joint, and a great recipe for body glitter.
Yes. Because horror can also be funny, witty, and gritty.
So in the spirit of Halloween, how ‘bout a little magic with your horror? I’m still obsessed with this scene from Glee Season 3 (I just started watching it on Netflix):
Brittany S. Pierce: “When a pony does a good deed he gets a horn and he becomes a unicorn and then he poops out cotton candy until he forgets he’s magical and then his horn falls off…And black unicorns, they become zebras.”
Every December, I would start planning my birthday party. I’d write out a birthday list, figure out who I would invite, tell my mum the entire deal, and then flounce back to my room to figure out the details.
My birthday? It’s in November.
Looking back at that, it’s a surprise that when I started writing novels, I did it by the seat of my pants. Maybe that’s what happens when an INFJ tries to balance the intuitive with the judger.
I wrote my first two and a half novels (well, two and two halves) without any idea of what would come next aside from a vague sort of picture and once a brief outline. None of them worked. I couldn’t figure out why it took my beta readers months and months and death threats to return any feedback to me.
Nothing really motivated them enough to read my work. I couldn’t fathom why. I thought it was good. Maybe not perfect, but good.
Then about a year ago, I heard of something called “structure.”
For a while, this idea of structure eluded me like trying to catch smoke in a net. All the while, I felt like a really crappy Indiana Jones searching for relics on a waitress’s budget with no passport.
Which was sort of true. Except I have a passport.
It wasn’t until I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks that something massive clicked in my head, like the giant boulder finding the perfect niche.
My first books didn’t work because they completely lacked structure. Every book, play, and screenplay follows a certain amount of rules. It’s what keeps tension going. It’s what moves the story along. At its core, it is the instinctual resonance of a narrative arc that goes back to the days where we all sat around in caves picking our teeth with splintered femurs while a clan storyteller regaled us with legends and myths and feuds about cows.
Plot and structure are lovers, and good plots have great structure. Amazing plots have exceptional structure.
Most creative people don’t stand up and cheer when someone mentions rules or rigid words like structure. But structure isn’t something with much wiggle room, and once I realised that, I found I had more creative freedom. Not less. Because learning about structure gave me what every wannabe published writer writes for: an audience.
Screenplays work in three acts, but I’m now convinced that novels don’t. Novels are subject to something that I (among more notable authors) like to call the Muddle. The Muddle is what happens when you take a beginning and an end and sit on them. They get squished underneath your bum until there’s just a flat squidgy place in the middle that looks suspiciously like the rear end that indented it.
Because of the Muddle, I like to think of novel structure in quadrants.
Quadrant 1: Bring It On
In the first 20-25% of a novel, we meet the main characters. The time bomb starts ticking, an inciting incident happens, we get a feel for the antagonist, and we get a glimpse of the protagonist’s “normal” before proceeding to pick it up and smash it to bits. (Those things don’t happen in that order.) If these things aren’t present, why would any reader go on?
The inciting incident may or may not be the same as the first plot point (or the break into Act II, as they say in film), but sometimes it is. But when it happens, it must propel the protagonist into a life-altering decision and give the first real glimpse of the antagonist.
Quadrant 2: Flailing in the Waves
After the protagonist’s Big Life-Altering Decision, she starts finding out that what she thought was an inconvenient puddle is really a mire of badness. Quadrant 2 is her reacting, wading in, flailing out, and probably not having the most success. This is also a reason to love the four quadrants as opposed to one big second act — the protagonist’s flailing in Quadrant 2 leads up to the single biggest turning point in the novel: the midpoint.
Halfway through, your protagonist has another decision. This time it has to move her from reacting into being proactive. She has to learn information that forces her to move from lowly, nose-picking protagonist to chest-puffed hero.
Quadrant 3: Take the Fight
The third quadrant pushes the protagonist into fighting back against the aggressors, whether the antagonist is a specific person or many people or a fleet of rabid ants. She might not (probably won’t) always come out on top in these little skirmishes, but she has to try.
Quadrant 3 is your last chance for exposition, your last stand of the big reveals that culminates in your second plot point (or break into Act III — because big reveals after that plot point annoy readers and viewers alike. I think M. Night Shyamalan needs to read Story Engineering. A giant twist 10 pages from the end might seem snazzy, but it does nothing but confuse and cheat your readers.
Quadrant 4: Boom, Bam, Bow
After you bust the door down into this last quadrant, your story ought to be rolling down the hill like an unsupervised Violet Beauregard on an incline. It should roll smoothly toward the climactic final confrontation, and from there into a nice little meadow filled with tied-up subplots and dandelions.
That’s why I turned in my pantser card. While I had enough of a feel for structure to get turning points in the right place, they weren’t as effective because I could never verbalise what made them strong or weak. Knowing what needs to go where freed me up — especially when I started plucking books off my shelves to check up on these things. Pick up great books, and you’ll see that their quadrants all line up almost exactly.
I might not outline the entire book down to its toenails, but I will make sure I know certain things. And because I love you, here’s Emmie’s Magical Pre-Plot Checklist!
Who is my protagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
Who is my antagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
What is the central conflict of the story? What are three other layers of that conflict?
What is my first plot point? How will it show the antagonist threat for the first time and goose my character into the next quadrant?
What is my midpoint? What information will change my protagonist’s goals, mindset, and plan enough to propel her into proactivity?
What is my second plot point? What information must my protagonist have before the climax? What can shake her and still push her to be stronger? Does she need a “dark night of the soul?”
What is my climax? How is my protagonist going to beat my antagonist?
This is now my bare minimum for starting on page one — and I prefer to get more in-depth than that, at least when it comes to my characters if not the precise lining out of chapters. If nothing else, it helps avoid the Muddle!
How do you plot? Do you plot? Have you had to deal with the Silence of the Beta Readers? Do you actively think about the structure of your novels, or do you wing it? Does it work? Are you hating me right now? 🙂
Thanks for bearing with a long first post — I promise next time I’ll be more succinct.
There’s a lot of hate going around regarding “pantsers” – the type of writers that write by the seat of their pants.
I started out as a pantser.
For me, there is no right or wrong way to write a book, so long as you actually sit down and write the damn thing. So many people get caught up in the thinking and editing and re-editing that they never finish.
So to avoid this, you need to figure out what kind of writer you are. Are you an outliner, someone who plans? Or are you a pantser that just lets the ideas and words flow, prepared to edit at the end? Or are you a mix?
Oh yeah, it’s not black and white, you can be grey. I happen to be grey.
I just finished writing my fifth novel and with each book I have found that my writing style has evolved just as the stories I’ve written have evolved.
When I first sat down years ago and tried to write my first novel, I was convinced, CONVINCED!, that it had to be totally outlined before I sat down to write even one word. So one night I figured out the entire story, plot point by plot point. I knew when it started, when it ended and every twist and turn in between.
Sounds awesome, right? Wrong.
I would spend the next three years trying to write that story. I only ever got to around 35,000 words. By the time I hit around the 25,000 mark I was two-thirds through with the whole thing. Not good since this wasn’t a short story or a novella.
It took me a long time to realize that, in my mind, I had already written the story because of how detailed my outline was. There was absolutely no urgency for me to tell this story so I couldn’t. When I realized that and was able to let it go, the backstory of Earth, the first book in my Elemental Series, blossomed, fully formed in my mind.
I sat down that very day and wrote more than 9,000 words in less than three hours. Remember, it had been over 3 years and I had only written 35,000 words of that first story. I have never written anything that huge, in that amount of time since, but I finally knew what I had been doing wrong.
As a pantser I accept that there will be a lot of editing and revising when I’m done. As a pantser I accept that I cannot allow myself to go back and edit as I write; I have to just write myself a quick note on a piece of paper to remind myself when I am finally sitting down to edit. But that’s all okay with me because it makes it so much easier for me to write. I have the urgency I need to tell the story and that urgency comes across on the page.
For me, I see the final scene of a book in my head when I first sit down to write; then I write to it. My stories are a map to that final scene and we follow it together. I don’t always know what characters are going to walk on stage, I don’t always know when my characters are going to fight, but this allows for my characters to behave more organically because I’m not fighting with them to stay in an outline. For me this works.
Now, I said I was grey earlier because recently I have had to do some loose outlines to stay on track.
Fire, the fourth book in my series, was one of the hardest, most emotional books for me to write to date. As a matter of fact I wrote about 75% of it and then suddenly walked away from it for about six months, unable to go on. I think because I was afraid of the ending. Anyway. When I finally sat back down I had no idea how to get from the point where I had left off to the end and just trying to write wasn’t working. So I took out a pen and wrote out full sentence outlines for the final chapters leading up to the last chapter.
I did not outline that last chapter. I knew that one had to be totally organic. But I managed to write the last 25% of the book in less than a month.
So see? Sometimes outlines will work and sometimes they won’t. You have to decide what works for you. Can you successfully plot a whole novel without a map? Can you drive this novel by sheer instinct and find your way home? Or do you need an outline to act as your map, taking you through the twists and turns and safely out the other side?
Answer those questions and you’ll probably figure out why you haven’t managed to finish that illusive first draft.