Elements of Writing Horror: Something Must Die

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(c) hotblack

The goal of horror is to elicit an intense fear, and there nothing that humans fear more than death. Death is the last curtain call, the ending to the show. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has some level of terror about the final end. Fear of death is universal. Horror stories feed off this trepidation. Every single tale of the macabre contains a death, which is essential to amp up the panic in a character.

The purpose of a story is show the growth of a central character. In order to grow, there needs to be a triggering event that transports the character in a positive or negative direction. Yes, characters can grow negatively and fall from where they originated. Typically in the genre of horror, the main character does descend. Eternal loss is a plot tactic for this catalyst. The build up to death is what generates the character’s (and essentially the reader’s) fear — the intrinsic element of horror.  The key to utilizing the tactic of death is to create the eternal loss of the one thing that the main character holds most dear. The event of the death will be the crux of growth for the character: the moment of his / her turning point.

Fear is an aid to the warrior. It is a small fire burning. It heats the muscles, making us stronger. Panic comes when the fire is out of control, consuming all courage and pride.

— David Gemmell, Lord of the Silver Bow

The principal death in a story may not always happen to a human. Death can be existential, relating to non-human, inanimate, or intangible things.  The death may be of a beloved pet, favorite notebook, or prized vehicle. Think about how Louis reacted to the hit-and-run of Church in Pet Semetary, and the horror that developed out of that death… and disturbing “funeral”.  Then look at what happened with the death of Gauge. Stephen King really upped the fear factor by viciously killing off Louis’ cat and kid! A death can also be the demise of hope, happiness, or dreams. There is nothing more horrific in the world than watching the hope in someone wither away and die (think Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).

Sometimes the best death to play up is the “death of oneself”. Fear of one’s own mortality is experience by every human. We are all afraid of when we will die. Add to that, there is also the fear of how we will experience that final moment. I think everyone hopes that they will go peacefully in their sleep. Yet, in most cases, that can’t be further from truth. In brutal honesty, most of us will go with some amount of pain from this world. Detaching from a body that has carried us through the years is not something that I can believe to be easy (or painless). Sending your main character on the downward, negative spiral through the stages of their own death, and fighting to come to terms that they are about to be snuffed out, will hold the reader in suspense and fear until the inevitable end.

If you are looking to include horror in your story, death must be a component. Your character, within the realm of this genre, cannot evolve (or depending on your plot, “de-evolve”) without it. Deduce what type of loss your main character dreads the most. Lead up to the final moments with accelerated heart beats, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. Make them question or go through the seven stages of grief. Continue to evoke apprehension in the protagonist that they may one day lose this “thing” that they treasure, and then make them suffer in agony as you brutally tear it away. Your character’s anxiety and despair will transfer to your reader, pulling him / her deeper into your story and rouse their empathy. You will make them resonate with the loss and tremble in fear. And that is the ultimate goal of horror: to make your readers scared.

If you want to be successful in writing horror, something must die in your story.


If you are interested in enhancing horror in your writing, check out these other Elements of Horror posts by The Sarcastic Muse

Writing with Deadlines

Writing with DeadlinesSo, you want to be a writer? My condolences. It’s not all luxury mansions, penthouse apartments, and crime solving like the idiot box suggests. There’s a lot of hard work goes into producing a submittable manuscript and every writer worth their salt will tell you that, sooner or later, you’ll be up against deadlines.

Now, this is an apt topic area this week as all of the muses are suffering from deadline-induced panics. All expect Amanda. Amanda is buying mountain bikes. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. What’s up with that? Anyway, I thought I’d take the time to share with you a few tips on meeting (and beating) those deadline blues.

1) Set realistic deadlines

Some deadlines are set for us and we have little control over those. Others, we set ourselves. Call them what you will — goals, aims, chocolate rewards — a deadline is a deadline. Sometimes these can help keep us motivated, especially on longer projects like novels. But, when used incorrectly, they can hinder your creativity and leave you wanting to give up.

When you set your own deadlines, ask yourself “Is this realistic?” You’re going to get disheartened if you constantly set unachievable targets and miss every one. While we would all love to complete, edit, and submit a novel in a month, it just isn’t feasible. However, it is reasonable to aim to complete a first draft in three months.

2) Don’t be afraid to say no

When deadlines are outside our control, we reserve the right to say no to them. This can be difficult for new (and even seasoned) writers, but it’s important. It’s better, and much more professional, to tell an editor that the deadline is too tight than to rush and submit something that doesn’t show you at your full potential.

The publishing industry is fast moving and we all have to turn down anthologies and other work sometimes just so that we can cope with the projects we already have. On the flipside, new opportunities come along just as quickly.

3) Plan your time

This is important so I’ll say it again, slowly:

Plan. Your. Time. Carefully.

Most deadlines are achievable if you have a plan and stick to it. Sure, you need to build in flexibility, but a plan is imperative to keep you on track and to get you to that due date.

4) Write when you’ll say you’ll write

This should be a no-brainer, but I’ve been guilty of it myself. Facebook, Twitter, emails, they’re all big time sinks. An hour spent on Facebook equates to three earth years (it doesn’t really, but it’s still time you should be writing). Use your plan to keep yourself on track and disable your self-control is anything like mine.

5) Factor in time for editing and proofreading

Writing isn’t the end of the story (haha…story). Your first draft will likely be terrible no matter what you think. Factor in time to let your stories sit before you edit them. Trust me, after a week, you’ll hate your story as much as I hate all mine. That’s where the fun begins. You need to give yourself enough time to read it back, edit it, re-read it, edit it again, cry a few times, one final polish, and then it’s out the door. Anything else and you’re selling yourself short.

6) Reward yourself

You met your deadline? Great job! Go you! You deserve a pat on the back for that and so you should give yourself one. Better still, buy yourself that bike (I still don’t get this bike thing, Amanda) you always wanted or, go and see that movie you really want to see. You’ve done a fantastic job getting here and you should be proud. Show yourself some love.


What are you current goals/deadlines and what strategies do you have for meeting them?

 

The Sport of People Watching

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(c) hotblack

Characters abound in everyday reality outside of the realm of fiction. One just has to know how to find them.  Human interaction floods everyday senses, and for most people, the experience passes without a thought. But not writers. Not writers. We feed off the essence of other humans, absorbing personalities, quirks, facial reactions, likes / dislikes, features, looks, clothing. Every day human beings taking shape and form in a writer’s mind to influence characters that reside in poems, stories, novels.

All authors should partake in the event of “people watching”. It’s a rather addicting sport once you start, and one that can be done at any time, anywhere in public.

There is very little equipment needed to partake in people watching. All one needs is their favorite writing tools:  Pen & notebook, tablet, laptop, smart phone, blood on your t-shirt… well maybe not that last one. Best to remain inconspicuous whilst people watching. The goal is NOT to draw attention.

How to people watch:

Essentially you have to become a wee bit “stalker-ish”.

  • Find a nice comfy place to sit,
  • Arrange yourself with your favorite writing tool,
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself,
  • Hone in on a subject,

And then take it all in:

  • Observe interactions with one another.
    • How are two people communicating? Are they laughing, arguing, staring romantically into each other’s eyes?
    • How does a large crowd of people act? Are they boisterous, jovial, fighting, or singing their hearts out?
    • How does a person on their own act? Is she tucked away in the corner, is he confidently out in the open, is she reading a book, is he staring at his smartphone?
  • Watch facial expressions.
    • What kind of look is the subject making?
    • What is causing them to react in such a way?
  • Pay attention to little movements, like brushing hair behind an ear or fiddling with a ring.
    • What is motivating those actions?
    • What kind of emotion does the person emit when they make these motions?
  • Listen to conversations.
    • What kind of conversation is it? Friendly chatter, romantic sayings, heated arguments?
    • How is each person handling their side?
    • What kind of reactions or little movements are the subjects making during the conversation?
  • Inhale and take in the scent of the atmosphere around you.
    • Is the smell of the location influencing your subjects, like in a coffee shop or bakery?
  • Feel the temperature of the location.
    • Is it too hot because there are too many people around?
    • Is it too cold because there are only a few?

What are the benefits?

There are too many benefits from people watching than I could possibly list, however, for the context of today, the main benefit is that people watching helps to develop characters and build scenes. It provides a catalyst of inspiration to those who may be struggling to get a character formed, or it provides enhancement for others who are trying to write a wider of characters. Scenery can also be fleshed out whilst observing people. Since an environment has an impact on how one is acting, pull some of that influence from the scene in reality to enhance a scene in your fiction, connecting that with how your character exists within that scene.

How often should this be done?

As often as need be. The thing is, once you become obsessed with the sport of people watching, you sometimes struggle to turn off the channel. You will soon catch yourself observing everything and anything around you. And it will all become embedded in your brain. Not only is people watching going to help you grow as an author, it is also going to help you grow as a person. You will learn to better analyze those around you.

So go forth and take in all that people watching has to offer.


Where are some of your favorite places to people watch? What are some of the most bizarre things that you have observed that influenced a character in your fiction?

 

A Series of Style: How Stylistics Can Help Your Writing

The series I have planned will focus on particular elements of style — word choices, rhetorical devices, syntax, and so on — and how these elements pertain to fiction. In writing these posts, I hope to emphasize how the language choices we make in our creative writing endeavors help construct the narrative we’re creating. And, most importantly, I hope to show you how to use them to your advantage.

What is stylistics?

Stylistics is, first and foremost, an academic discipline. But wait! Before you run away screaming, I have a secret to share. You come into contact with style constantly: in speech, at university, reading the news, even on social media. It makes sense, then, that style plays such a heavy role in fiction. Have you ever given your character an individualized or societal way of speaking? That’s style. What about debated the use of a word and then chosen a synonym because it “sounded better?” Again, style. Have you shortened your sentence length to pace an action scene and to “speed up” the feel of the prose? You guessed it. Style.Craft and Art

Stylistics is one of those disciplines that bridges into other disciplines and is not generally studied on its own. When I studied it for my master’s thesis, I predominantly focused on stylistics as the bridge between linguistics and poetry, but many of my sources handled prose as well. It fascinated me: how style, as both a field of study and an intuitive part of our writing, is inherent to a creative text. Here we’re mostly going to be looking at the latter.

Who? What? When? Where?

In both literary criticism and linguistics, it’s not uncommon to ask common WH-questions: Why was a theme used in a particular work? Which parts of our language have changed over time? Whose choices in a novel affect the structural process of the prose and subsequently the story? However, the thing about stylistics—and, more narrowly, of style itself—is that it doesn’t focus so much on the why or what of language, but on the how. How do we use language—vocabulary, syntax or sentence structures, sound play (alliteration, assonance), meaning variations—to improve the story we’re trying to tell?

How does style apply to my writing?

You don’t realize it, but you use style subconsciously every time you choose a word, construct a sentence, or even when you adhere to specific genre standards. In the case of “how” we’re using language, this is also applicable to how we write it and how we show it through our characters and prose. For instance:

  • How do we use dialogue in our stories to imitate regional dialects?
  • Does a character have a particular individual dialect (idiolect) that characterizes his actions?
  • How does sentence length affect the overall tone and rhythm of a piece? How does it carry the action of a scene?
  • How do particular word choices influence meaning and overall meter of sentences?
  • How does punctuation affect our associations of timing?

The list could go on and on, to be honest. The interesting part is seeing where and how it all connects when words and ideas and grammar meet. And how all these tiny linguistic connections build what eventually become a novel.

Think about it . . .

So what’s next? In subsequent posts, we’ll work on observing style in everyday fiction. We’ll discuss these through examples and (hopefully) understandable explanations.

Additional Resources

If stylistics is an entirely new concept to you and you’re interested in reading additional material, I point you to the following resources:

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

A book for the layman, so to say. Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist who has written several books about language and the mind’s way of using it.

A Dictionary of Stylistics – Katie Wales

This was the single most useful book for my thesis. I’m pretty sure it saved my life a couple times. Definitely applicable to more than just academics. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I really love it.


Have you heard of stylistics or studied it before? Are there any particular elements of style you’d like me touch upon in the upcoming months?

Let me know in the comments below!

What’s the Difference Between a Creative (Writing) Practice and Doing Creative Work?

Cultivate your creativityA writing practice (or creative practice of any sort–I use the words interchangeably) involves intentionally setting aside regular time—a routine—for creative work. Forming the habit of showing up takes away the idea that one must feel ready to create or “be in the mood.”

Isn’t it better to be in the mood?

Plenty of writers, especially early on, feel they must be in the mood or have the urge before they can sit down and write. While that’s nice to have, it’s not necessary. Writing isn’t just an art, it’s a craft, and craftsmen work at their craft regularly. Creative work is fostered by routine (and often results in inspiration or the right mood). No more asking yourself “should I write today?” If you set aside the time, you write. It may not be stellar work, but that will come.

A creative practice is like meditation or exercise. There’s resistance. There’s the excuse of no time. But regular routine breaks down the resistance until your practice is just an ingrained part of your life. Your mind and body learn to switch gears more readily as well.

Can I only write when scheduled?

We may write outside of our scheduled time as well, and that’s fine. The creative work happens both inside and outside of routine, but the busier your life is, the more a routine will help you to get words on the page.

Think of a writing practice as “showing up” to do the work. Think of it as a mindful way to honor your creative side and your desire to write. Self-care. Personal development. It is all of these things.

Where did this idea come from?

I was first exposed to the idea of a writing practice by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones. The principles were restated and reinforced by Julia Cameron in The Right to Write. Since then, I’ve run across the term in every art form as well as yoga, prayer, exercise, and more.  One explanation I heard was “a practice is intention.” And that’s also true. If you are interested in creating a writing life for yourself, I recommend both of these books along with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

For many of us, writing is a lifestyle as much as a calling or passion. We didn’t get there overnight. We created a writing practice and stuck with it. We became practitioners.

So how do I develop a writing practice?

  • Write routinely. I’m a proponent of daily writing, but everyone is different. Whether it’s Sunday afternoon, fifteen minutes before work, or thirty minutes after the kids are in bed, make it regular and stick with it. (And start on time. The dishes and other things will wait.)
  • If you aren’t working on a project, use a writing prompt, write an essay, do a character sketch. Use various writing exercises if you like, from timed writing to stream-of-consciousness writing.
  • Tell yourself that you are worth it until you believe it. Honoring your creative drive is healthy, not selfish.
  • Get an accountability partner. Tell a trusted friend what you are doing and ask them to both encourage you and check in to see how you are doing with your practice.
  • If you naturally rebel against structure, keep your routine fluid. Perhaps set a quota to meet on a weekly basis or plan thirty minutes sometime before bed. It’s less ideal but I have confidence you will grow into a routine that suits you.

Why do I need a creative practice?

The moodiest, unhappiest people I’ve ever met were artists of one sort or another who were not making time for their art. I was this person for half a year. Creativity is an integral part of who we are. Ignoring it is akin to depriving our senses.  If you are already creating regularly, that’s great! Keep it up. If you aren’t, develop your own practice. If you need help, let me know and I will come alongside you until you are under way.


Do you cultivate a writing practice? If so, how has it helped you creatively? If not, can you see yourself starting one?