Saturday, February 10, 2007

More Tips for Writing Horror

Trying to write these down as they occur to me, mostly for my own reference later, as I think how to improve my own writing. I'm thinking now of more meta issues that go beyond specific stylistic points. And, as always, all of these are things I've noticed as I've been reading as much horror as I can in the last couple months, and as I've tried to incorporate other people's advice into my own (crude and developing) style, so I'm really just thinking out loud.

1) It's all about plot. I keep reading this one in people's advice, like the action matters most, and I'm not sure I agree 100%, and I can think of great stories where not much happens, but the essence of the insight is that there has to be (at least in a traditional story, I suspect this does not apply as much to flash fiction or experiments like prose poetry) a problem that the protagonist confronts, and that's what drives the story. I guess I don't think of this as being as big of a problem as others, because if you've sat down to write, you've probably thought of what you want to have happen. The problems come when the plot is just too simple, too complex, or too hackneyed. Imitation is a great and powerful tool, but there has to be innovation. And the level of complexity you can sustain, given the size of the writing and your own interests, has to be carefully gauged. Nothing worse than having a very complex plot that just has to be hurriedly resolved at the end, deus ex machina.

2) It's all about pacing. I think of this most times I see a Hollywood movie. Very important sub category of plot. So many writers seem to think that if one chase is good, ten in a row are really good. One fight is good? Ten must be better. Totally wrong. Several such scenes in a row and the effect is totally lost and you are making scenes that should be exciting into scenes that are, instead, deadly boring. Alternate intense scenes with blocks of dialogue, scenes that work on character and mood, and blocks of exposition. And keep down the total number of action scenes, even if they don't come in a row. You'll get so much more out of them.

3) It's all about consistency. This is really important on so many levels. Grammatically: if I see shifts in tense, I'm done reading. It's too sloppy and distracting to be excused. Plot details: if someone goes outside one sunny afternoon, and breathes in the cool morning air, then I tune out again, because the author's made me waste time going back to reread what I just read, to see if I had missed something. And then the really big level of consistency: characterization. Characters have to have a very deep level of consistency in their behaviors and beliefs. A lot of writers and movies go against this, as though having a character do random, unmotivated things makes that character complex. Not at all. It makes that character annoying and unbelievable. I see it all the time in Hollywood movies, so it has nothing to do with beginning authors, it just seems to be a temptation when one works on a story (or, I suspect in the case of Hollywood, when movies are written by committee).

4) It's all about character. This is the one I believe in the most. When I think of all the books I've loved and that I remember vividly, it's always because they are populated with such believable, rich characters. Spend time thinking about, daydreaming about your characters, how they would react in any given situation, their emotions, their values. (And as some writers have pointed out: every character is an extension of yourself, so you know what you're talking about, if you really think about it.) Now, some people go to another extreme and start putting in all kinds of useless details: no, every detail has to serve some narrative purpose, almost none should be thrown in just for "color." And I've been so thrilled when a character does something I didn't expect or plan, but which does, if I really think about and reflect on it, makes perfect sense. That means it's working.

4) It's all about "meaning." This is another one I really believe in, so long as we take "meaning" broadly enough. I don't mean every story has to have an explicit moral, and those can be quite heavy-handed and distracting, which is where I frequently have to rein myself in, or I'll always add some heavy-handed tag (though that's no reason to eschew morals in stories completely). Maybe "effect" is a better, more general term. You are trying to induce a particular effect in your reader, something more specific than "be entertained" or "spend $10 for my book." You want them to feel "scared," or "uplifted," or "happy." Try to have that purpose in mind as much as possible as you write, to help you as you make narrative decisions and take your story in a particular direction. This also goes back to consistency: stories that mix dark and humorous elements haphazardly and inconsistently don't work at all.


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