Another Round of How-To

March 01, 2010

This is the first of three posts on How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Edited by J. N. Williamson.  The book is a collection of How-To articles by some of the best horror writers, circa 1987.

Late last year I did a series of posts on On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa 2007.  Twenty years separate the publication of these two books, but so far I haven’t found anything other than the market survey that really differentiate the two.  I’ve commented before that information repeated across authors is usually good advice, and I think that’s still true.  But, I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t found anything new here.  Yet.

The Editor’s Forward: Certain of What We Do Not See, J. N. Williamson

Williamson give a brief survey of the markets, then dives into providing definitions for the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres.  What I found most interesting is that Williamson states very clearly that the book was published:

…to help you write publishable novels or stories for the three genres coexisting beneath that umbrella term, fantasy: horror, or dark fantasy; science fiction; and fantasy itself.

I think it’s important to remember that horror, science fiction, and fantasy really fall under this one umbrella of fantasy.

Introduction: How to Write Horribly for Fun and Profit, Robert Bloch

I would sum up Bloch’s article as: Let the story dictate genre and length.

According to Bloch, hackwork flooded the market at that time (his words, not mine).  And most of that work consisted of ideas stretched to meet commercial needs.  He says that the difference between current authors and those who endured is that the enduring authors had something to say and knew how to say it.

He says of horror that some of the work succeeds on the “fast-read” level, but that he doubts it will endure.  He also thinks that the films of the day were an influence on the “heavy-handed sex and violence” that permeated horror and had little to do with story.

Then he gets to the most interesting part.  He talks about interior logic, and how it poses a problem for horror fiction.  Nightmares are “…inconsistent and episodic.”  But to scare a reader, the writer must present the premise in a logical framework.  I have struggled with this in my writing.  When I have ideas or inspiring dreams (nightmares), they do come in clips, often laden with personal symbolism that reinforces them as frightening.  To turn those ideas into a story, I have to work at wrapping a presentable, logical framework around them.  Although performing that transformation is challenging, it helps to clarify the original idea into something much more meaningful.  I also find that the process brings out opportunities for originality, which Bloch believes is necessary for success.

Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds, Ray Bradbury

Bradbury discusses an idea also found in Stephen King’s On Writing: stories are found things.  He does this by describing his own personal development as a writer.  He wrote fast, he wrote a lot, and he let himself make mistakes.  He wound up with an interesting process: he keeps lists of nouns and periodically reviews them for items that seem to click together into a story.  He also learned that his “…characters would do [his] work for [him].”   The more he worked through his process, the more ideas he built, and the more stories he developed.

Bradbury sums up his creative habit as such:

If I had not made up these prescriptions for Discovery I would never have become the jackdaw archaeologist or anthropologist that I am.

I’m discovering the same thing in my development.  Working on a story is more like discovering than creating.  I think it’s a little difficult for my critique partners–or will be soon–as I often submit things out of sequence.  But, it’s how the story comes around for me.  I set an idea down, I pull together some characters, and I let them work it out.  As the story takes shape, I discover new facets and characters that I feel must have been present all along, I just hadn’t seen them yet.  The more I write, the more I uncover.  That could lead to wandering and voluminous work, but I temper it with economy of language.

I think the metaphor of writer as archaeologist works for me, so I’ll hang onto it for now.

Plotting as Your Power Source, J. N. Williamson

I have mixed reactions to Williamson’s essay on Plot.  He breaks it down into 4 parts.

​1. Defining the Plot

Williamson claims hat all novels must have a sense that things are going somewhere.  One can hardly disagree:

…a plot is not an idea, one fairly well-rounded character, a flurry of conversation climaxed by a quarrel, kiss-and-make-up, and a cheery platitude.  That is a vignette.

So what is plot?  I had a little trouble picking out a clean definition, other than it’s the mechanism to keep things moving forward.  He cites Koontz’s article (later in the book) by saying plot is the skeleton, reiterates that plot is the sense of things moving forward, calls it “…a means of transportation for the characters in your fiction,” and again cites Koontz as saying that plot is the “most demanding task that a novelist must face…”.  So plot is what keeps the story moving forward.   I’m not entirely sure that’s a workable definition, but there’s nothing I can’t accept in it.

To me, plot is the connecting threads under all the scenes in a story.  It’s why all the pieces of a story are present, what makes them related.  That’s not so different from Williamson’s definition, nor any clearer.

​2. Plotting Unpredictably

Williamson states pretty clearly that, for the genres in question, the best stories have plots that contain unpredictable elements.  Again, I can agree with Williamson.  The best horror stories are those that take the reader by surprise at some point.

​3. Plotting with the Outline

Here is where my opinion diverges from Williamson.  This is the old argument for Plotting as opposed to “pantsing” (making it up as you go along).  I’m still working out which is right for me, but I suspect that most writers are actually neither.  Sure, we can plan the work out up from all we want, but at some point while we’re writing, things will change.  A plan is not the final product, and there’s no way to know what will and won’t work until you get to it.  I prefer to get into the work.  When I want to, I can be prolific.  I don’t mind wasting words on the page if it helps me work out the story.  In fact, that’s plotting, right?  It just so happens that I plot better during my writing process and not before it.

That aside, Williamson provides some more advice:

  • Start everything in the middle of action.  Too many works start with exposition.  He blames this on working without an outline, but the self-editing process can excise the extra verbiage.  What harm is it if it helps me think, so long as I take it out later?
  • End with all significant questions answered.
  • Every crisis must advance the plot, show more about your characters, and show more about the “enigma that resides at the soul of your plot.”
  • Follow expository scenes with action scenes.
  • Use a thesaurus.

​4. The Art of Plotting

I wasn’t clear on what Williamson was getting at in this last section.  I think he’s trying to say that plotting is essential to producing good art.  I agree if he’s saying that all good stories need a good plot, but I still disagree with the idea that outlining is the only means of producing a good plot.  Once again, he cites Koontz, and the quote is worth repeating:

The purpose of fiction is communication, and if the work is not read, the purpose is not fulfilled.

Very true.  But there’s still nothing to refute the idea that there are many ways of producing a good plot.  The idea that a writer must use an outline to plot is very narrow-sighted, in my opinion.  The writer must learn what works for them.

Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction, Mort Castle

Castle centers his essay around the idea of story time.  In order to effectively draw the reader into story time, the writer must create credible fiction.  And, the key to credibility, in Castle’s opinion, is setting and character.

These items are more important in horror (actually, any fantasy) because, by the very nature of the genre the reader is already asked to accept some wild “What-if”.  In order to keep the reader immersed in sustainable suspension of believe, everything around the story’s wild premise must be as believable as possible.  So Castle suggests that we keep the everything else (setting and character) as grounded in reality as possible.

He provides two reasons for such.

  • Readers are familiar with the ordinary, and relate to it without the writer having to put significant work into building that relationship.
  • Horror happens with the extraordinary infringes upon the ordinary.

I to agree with both of these ideas.  The most terrifying stories are those with characters and settings to which we can relate.  It takes the story from an idea to a demonstration of possibility in our lives.

One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction, Steve Rasnic Tem

Why is creating character in SF/F/H any different that other genres?  Tem tells us that the idea that characters in our genre are simply ordinary folks tossed into extraordinary conditions is false.  The concept ignores that stories are made things–artifacts that the writer uncovers and develops.  Characters cannot be separated from their context, so the writer must develop a context that helps the reader understand how the fantastic characterizes the protagonist (or presumably any character).  He references the Twilight Zone, and how it made consistent use of “something wrong…dropped into the midst of [a] highly realistic context.”  The best writers use this situation of a strange situation to “peer more deeply into the souls of the characters”.

Tem goes on to discuss dream characterization, based on a theory of “gestalt dream interpretation” that “suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer.”  Tem suggests this idea can be used in horror if the writer consider that everything in a story that’s not the protagonist is still representation of the protagonist in some way.  I find this an interesting approach, but I think it breaks in very complex stories, or stories where the protagonist and the POV character are different.

Detail is also more important in SF/F/H than in other genres, according to Tem.  He states that in science fiction, “people and communities characterized by the devices…they choose to surround themselves with.”  And that in horror, the reader needs to focus on detail to better understand the character, and possibly recognize things about the characters they either ignore or deny.

Finally, Tem links character and plot, stating that using plot to characterize just extends the idea of characterization through action.  He suggests that if working in the context of dream characterization, that those actions that happen to a character must also be considered reflections of the character.  Sounds like karma to me.

Where do we find ideas for characters?  Tem says:

Once you have developed a process of characterization that is intimately connected to all the elements of a story, you will be able to find complete and compelling characters just about anywhere.

But he doesn’t leave it there.  He actually provides a list of things that might inspire character, including: anxiety, autobiographies, fear, obsession, dark folk tales, and the anxieties of an era.

I think Tem provides an interesting framework–dream characterization–for developing characters, but I’m not convinced it would apply broadly.  As I said before, I think if the POV character is different from the protagonist, then it would be difficult for the POV character to get an exact lens on how the work around him is a reflection of some other character.  But, maybe I’m wrong.  This is something I’ll have to play with later to figure out.

“Oh, Just Call Me Cuthbert”: The Naming Game, Thomas Millstead

What’s in a name?  Millstead says there’s a lot, and that as writers we must pay attention to the “vast importance of names in tales intended to chill, thrill, or enthrall.”  Providing good names is important in all fiction, but Millstead tells us it is even more important in the fantasy genres because they strive to get at something deeper and become more than just representational of reality.

What makes the fanciful real, what fives it substance, is a name so apt that, in retrospect, it could be nothing else.

That seems pretty daunting at first.  I think he’s right–names are critical because they usually are a reader’s first brush with the things they represent.  We introduce characters and places and things by name, or we withhold the name (on rare occasion) to create impact later in the story.  They have to be the right names.

How do we get the names right?  Millstead tells us there are no criteria for picking the right ones, just an underlying precept.  The names must be compatible with the tone and texture of the story.  Don’t make the names an afterthought.  Avoid making hasty decisions, and pinning on names that are drab, suggest the wrong ethnic or social backgrounds, or overlap in sound.

Involving Your Reader from the Start, William F. Nolan

Nolan tells us that, “…the acid test of a story is its opening.  A good story should leap off the page, grab you by the throat, and demand, ‘Read me!’”.

That pretty much sums up the article.  The rest is a listing of about 20 opening lines from his own work.  They are interesting to review, and are good demonstrations of opening lines that grab.

He closes by saying that we live in a fast society, submerged in a variety of media, and that in order for writers to compete they must produce works that seize the reader’s attention.  If you don’t get them quickly, they have plenty of other options to explore.  This article is copyright 1987.  It was true then, and even more true now.  As technology has blossomed, our readers have plenty of other options for entertainment.  We might like to pretend that the written art is somehow “better” than television or movies, but I would reiterate the Koontz quote from earlier:

The purpose of fiction is communication, and if the work is not read, the purpose is not fulfilled.

To be read, the writer must learn to compete effectively against the other media outlets.  Grab the reader as quickly as possible, and never let go until the end.

Freedom of Originality in Fantastic Fiction–and How to Use It, James Kisner

Kisner claims that the genres in question give the writer more opportunity for originality than the others.  The writer must train his imagination to recognize for two reasons.  First, “the mind is easily fooled into grasping the obvious and claiming it for its own.”  Second, he says that beginning writers are told incorrectly that there’s nothing new–it’s all been done before.

How do we urge originality?  Kishner reiterates what all writers should be doing:  read and study.  The more work a writer is exposed to the more likely they are to avoid the mundane.  He suggests that the writer who keeps notes on original works and analyzes those works considered original is better able to find originality in his own work.  Kishner also reiterates the now familiar advice of reading across genres.

He cautions against letting a single work define what is original, and also states there is danger in reading too much.  Apparently the key is to read just the right amount.  I jest.  I think the advice here is correct, but it’s not new by today’s standards.

There is one place to use as a sort of ‘originality checker’ that I was not familiar with.  He suggests getting writer’s guidelines from publishers, as they will often include a list of things to avoid.  So far, I’ve only encountered one such list, but I also have yet to start marketing any book-length fiction.

I agree originality is important, but I think Kisner missed one item that can spark originality.  As T. S. Eliot said:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost - and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

I think originality can also be encouraged by placing constraints on yourself.  Back yourself into a corner and see how you get out.

Creating Fantasy Folk, Ardath Mayhar

Mayhar provides two means for developing fantasy folks–by which he means anything not existing, not just elves, etc.

  1. Begin with a world and its characteristics, then figure out what kind of creatures could live there.
  2. Begin with a creature that has to be a certain way, then develop the context around it.

These seem obvious to me.  Mayhar provides a couple examples, but I didn’t find anything very interesting in either of these.

But, he does wrap up with some very important advice.  As writers, we can’t let the plot get overwhelmed by explanations of our fantastic creatures.  Whatever information a reader needs to understand our creatures must come out naturally in the narrative and dialog.  They must be treated as any other character:

Its appearance and habits must come through observation of the being in action.

I thought of Lovecraft when I read this, who is at times given to providing long explanations of his creatures.  I think that may be part of why some readers are less than thrilled with his work.  In other words, “Show, don’t tell.”

Keeping the Reader on the Edge of His Seat, Dean R. Koontz

Koontz introduces two kinds of suspense: light, and dark.  The light kind of suspense it the roller coaster ride, something fun and desirable.  The darker kind “strains your heart, breaks your spirit.”  He says that only in fiction do we actually seek both kinds of suspense, because fiction is vicarious.  Readers are drawn toward tales that can show how to face tragedy with dignity.

Koontz cautions us against confusing action for suspense, and says that action can only be suspense if the writer understands:

​(1) suspense in fiction results primarily from the reader’s identification with and concern about lead characters who are complex, convincing, and appealing; and (2) anticipation of violence is infinitely more suspenseful than the violence itself.

I agree with Koontz, but I think the first is another way of saying that the reader must care for your characters.  That’s common advice among my reading.  I think the second point is the key.  Anticipation serves the writer better than well-described acts of violence.  To be fair, I’ve engaged in the latter, but that doesn’t make it right.  You give the reader more when you build up anticipation.

Koontz continues to tell us that good, likable characters are important for horror because the best horrors are those we find lurking inside the hearts and minds of people.  In order to get our reader to come down that path, we must present them with characters whose heads they want to get into.

One piece I’ve not heard emphasized before is the importance of style.  Koontz claims it is as important as characterization and anticipation because it is the flow of words on the page that carry the reader along.  The downside of this advice, in my opinion, is that style is only developed, not learned.  I’ve been working on understanding my style the past six months, and it’s a challenge.

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