Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Really Scares You?

According to the dictionary, horror is defined as "a painful, strong emotion caused by extreme fear, dread, repugnance, etc." Now, fear is defined as "an agitated feeling aroused by awareness of actual or threatening danger, trouble, etc." These two states of mind are intertwined and travel hand in hand, both in life and literature. The important questions that those of us who write horror need to ask ourselves are: How can I instill those feelings in my readers? What setting should I use? What type of character(s) should I focus on? What events should I include? All necessary points to consider. Let's explore each one.

How can we instill a sense of horror and fear in our readers?

It has been said by those wiser than I to 'write what you know'. We all know that statement can be taken literally, or not, depending on what you're writing. When discussing horror, however, what we need to do is 'write what the reader knows'. While it is true that not much surpasses fear of the unknown, it is often the things or people in our lives that we are most comfortable or feel safest with, that we can come to fear the most, depending on the circumstances. If you want to build a strong sense of impending danger in your reader's mind, begin with something familiar, something cozy, and lull them into feeling all warm and snuggly. Then? Take it away - take it all away. Leave them suspended in mid-air - alone and confused - and trust me, they'll be afraid. They will suddenly see an individual or a situation they have encountered countless times and breezed through as terrible and terrifying. Your plotline will accomplish this, so plan it out well beforehand. Make sure your sequencing is right and the flow is smooth. Make sure you don't come at them like a speeding train. After all, you don't want them jumping out of the way, do you...

What setting should I use?

Here again, I would stick with what your reader knows. Dark, dusty, seemingly haunted mansions at the top of a hill are creepy, for sure. But, how many of us have ever visited or lived in one? A city you've created has potential as a setting for a dark tale, but if you're going to use a real one, make sure you're accurate with street names, etc. For all you know, one or more of your readers was born there, and they'll know right away that the intersection of Third and Foster is in the middle of Lake 'whatever', so watch out for that. The city or town, or even the country can be of secondary importance though, if you use a setting like a deserted building, a home, an apartment complex, an alleyway..., you get the idea. It is possible to keep it simple and still give your reader second thoughts about taking that overlooked trash bag to the end of the driveway after dark, or going downstairs to try to find that flashlight after the power cuts off. The familiar and the comfortable - turn them into the remote and the deadly.

What character(s) should I focus on?

You can go different ways with this. Some writers include 'people' as horror characters, while others prefer the inclusion of 'creatures'. What you use character-wise is a matter of personal preference. Writing about vampires and/or zombies can immerse your reader in that 'other' world while they're reading your story, and that's great, because that's your goal. But, if you want the fear to stay with them long after they've put your book down, one suggestion would be to stay in the 'reader's' world.

Let me say though, that there's not a thing wrong with killer worms and giant squids, and I personally love reading stories like that. I especially enjoy movies that contain 40 foot man-eating ants and headless corpses chasing campers through dark woods. But, in all honesty, I have a greater fear of knowing I'm being stalked by someone I've never met, or coming home and finding the back door open when I know I closed it before I left. This having occurred the day after I read in the newspaper that several convicts escaped from the local jail and were armed and dangerous. Reality. Things that could 'really' happen. Scary? Oh yeah!

What events should I include?

This will depend on your plotline. Are you dealing with a stalker? Does he leave notes or little tokens for the victim? Are there anonymous phone calls? Knocks on the door in the middle of the night? These can be focal points or peripheral occurrences, depending on where your story is going. Being held captive in an unfamiliar location by person or persons unknown worked superbly well in a story I'm sure we're all familiar with because while there is a lot of the unknown, there is also the 'could happen' factor. Any occurrence that is unexpected and has an unknown or known yet terrifying potential outcome would be very workable. It all depends on what you want to do to whoever you want to do it to. However again, 'do it' to your reader. Make sure whatever events you include remain in their subconscious as a 'real' possibility.

People love to read scary stories. It's exciting, it's exhilarating really, especially if what they're reading about could actually happen at any time. So, have fun, and get your scare on...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Take Ten Paces Forward, Turn, and...huh?

Alright, crime writers, what might your choice of weapons be?

Do you prefer a subtle and painless type of kill, like sedatives or some other type of drug, administered unbeknownst to the victim? Or,

Do you prefer the up close and personal type of kill, like using a garrote, a knife, or even your own two hands? Or,

Do you prefer a detached, silent type of kill, like a handgun with a silencer? Or,

Do you prefer a devasting, attention-grabbing kill, like using a bomb or arson, sometimes taking others out along with your intended?

This is a question that we, as those who write crime fiction, must answer time and again. As diabolical as it sounds, this is an issue we must face and resolve at the beginning of every piece of crime fiction we create, whether it be a short story or a novel. When preparing to begin to tell our tale, we must first examine our characters and our general plotline. Those who use the outline process would do the same. We carefully plan out who will be the 'bad' guy, or guys if applicable, and who will be the victim, or victims depending on the story. Then the work really starts.

First, you would need to explore the relationship between your killer and your victim, or even if there is one.

If you are creating a serial killer type of character, then the victims would be 'selected' ones. History tells us generally speaking, serial killers kill all their victims the same way. Now, if we've learned anything from history, nothing is ever absolute. Once you decide how your serial killer disposes of his victims, you might want to re-think being too predictable. Your weapon could still be consistent, but perhaps vary the circumstances a bit. Just something to consider. When you choose your weapon though, with a serial killer scenario, you probably want to stay away from grandiose gestures, like bombs or arson. Up close and personal types of kills would probably be the way to go.

If you are creating a spree killer type of character, again, history tells us those types of killers stay on the move, so you might want to consider a less intimate method. Guns, silenced or not, might be a good bet, possibly even a knife. They come in, they strike, they're gone, and on the lookout for another random kill.

When your killer, however, has some type of relationship with their victim - a real one, as in friends, acquaintences, or spouses - you may prefer a more hands-on method, like strangulation. One thing your killer might consider however, is strangulation is always homicide, while a drug overdose could be misinterpreted by the police as an accident or suicide. This would be a great weapon to use in the case of a mystery, where you don't want your readers to even suspect a crime has been committed until further on.

Then, you have those who commit their kill and then set fires to mislead the police and try to destroy evidence. This can also be a good plotline and add to the air of mystery. Was the fire the result of faulty wiring or was it arson? Great sub-plot potential there. If your crimes travel the road of high-end terrorism or espionage, then bombs might be your pick.

There's a lot to consider when you sit down to write a crime story. Great - you know who will do the killing and you know who will be killed. But how? While your weapon may or may not be a focal point of your story, it is still an important one. Look at all your options and be creative. Choosing the right weapon could add a whole new layer of suspense to your storyline.

One last thing: Remember always, when it comes to making your choice, as is the case for any other aspect of your story, research, research, and research. Don't just say 'so and so dropped eight sleeping pills in her bourbon'. Maybe eight sleeping pills wouldn't kill anyone; maybe they'd just cause an upset stomach after a twelve-hour nap. Don't ever assume this, that and the other will be fatal and undetectable. Your readers may not be forensic pathologists or chemists, but they will be able to see through a flawed murder plot, and then you've lost them. And we never want that to happen, now, do we...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

And you are...? And you are with...?

Characters, characters, and more characters. Who are these people? Do we even care who all these people are? Oh, you betcha! Character development is a critical component of any story, regardless of form, length, or genre. While our discussion may touch on horror or crime fiction characters, this is an element of writing we must all be very aware of.

'Susie walks slowly and silently down the dark hallway, fearing the moment she will reach the doorway at the end.' Really? Why? And, who is this 'Susie'? Why is she fearful of walking down a dark hallway? Is it because she thinks there might be a hole in the floor that might cause her to sprain an ankle? Or, is she afraid because as a child, her nanny used to drag her down this very hallway and chain her in one of the rooms? Does it matter which?

'Mary held the gun steadily in both hands, and looked into John's eyes for the last time. She smiled a soft smile, then pulled the trigger and he fell.'

What was Mary and John's relationship? Did he threaten to kill her and she was acting in self defense? Did Mary have a break with reality and think John was someone out of her past who used to abuse her? Or, is she a female serial killer who decided John would be her next victim? Do you need to know which?

These two examples are illustrations of a story's possible events. Now, just reading them as is, with no other information, they don't really hit you very hard as a reader, do they? Gee, somebody's scared. Oh my, somebody shot somebody. You move on and possibly skip the next few pages so you can find another event that might be a bit more interesting. Why? Characters. Or actually, the lack thereof.

When we write a character, be they major or minor, we can't just 'write' them. We need to 'create' them. We need to make them living, breathing, feeling beings that come right up off the paper and assault the reader's senses. The way we do this is to give them a life. We, as human beings, have pasts, we have memories, we have events that may have altered or helped to shape our lives, we have friends, we have likes, dislikes, etc. All these things are part of that which makes us what and who we are. Well, we need to also provide our characters with pasts, memories, events that may have altered or helped to shape their 'lives', friends, likes, dislikes, etc. All the things we have and are we must create for them.

Writers draw from different sources when they create characters. Some draw from their own lives, others draw from observations they make, still others use a combination of both. Whatever your 'inspiration', if you will, for the development of your characters, they must become three-dimensional; they must become 'real'. Otherwise, the things that happen to them, around them, or because of them, are meaningless. Nothing loses a reader's interest quicker than a story with characters you have no interest in; the reason being, you don't know them and frankly, can't know them either because the writer wouldn't let you.

We need to be able to open our hearts, our minds, and yes, our very lives, to these beings we create. It is necessary for us to infuse them with anger and hope, fear and happiness, sorrow and loyalty. 'Humanize' them. Make it so that the reader wants to laugh with them, cry with them, spy on them or tell on them. Make it so that the reader wants to bond in some way with your characters.

You can put explosions in there, gunfights, winged dragons spitting fire, and believe that's enough to carry the story, but unfortunately, without the core of 'real' people in there, the temptation is going to be strong for the reader to 'skim'. As writers, all our words are important. If they weren't relevant,we wouldn't have put them in there to begin with, right?

We want our readers to climb inside our stories from word one and stay there until we're ready to release them. One way to accomplish that is through the strength of each and every one of our characters. Don't be afraid to let your readers get to know them - and you.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Outline or No Outline: That is the Question!

Okay, you're all ready to tell your story. You know your characters' lives inside out; past, present, and future. All your locations have been thoroughly researched and you know them like the back of your hand. All of your events have been planned with split second precision. You sit down and place your hands on the keyboard. Your gaze moves slowly up to the blank screen. You take a breath, and place your fingers on the keys. The...? No, erase. He...? No, erase. She...? Or...? You've got a big problem.

This kind of problem doesn't just occur when you are beginning a writing project. It can also occur at any point, or even at the end. That's when you have to make a decision. You need to decide if you want to draw up an outline first and then begin to write your story, or just wing it. Believe it or not, there are advantages to both.

Personally, when I'm writing a short story, it is easier for me to just write 'off the cuff', so to speak. I get an idea in my head for the story and I just sit down and write it. When I'm finished, there may or may not be a lot of editing involved, but the story is pretty much done. There are points where I may run into a snag, but all in all, with a little time, I can work my way through. Now, when it comes to a novel length project, that's a whole other ballgame.

Novel length works can become quite complex, depending on genre. Character interaction is extensive, and adding numerous sub-plots is quite common. Even in this case, however, there are conflicting opinions.

I have spoken with writers who wouldn't go anywhere near their keyboard without a completed outline in hand. Then again, there are others who told me that they prefer to write their novel in novel form vs. writing their novel in outline form first, then putting in a few filler words to complete it. There was a real bitterness there, and I sensed a great animosity toward the whole outlining process, so I decided to try to find out why.

I had never used the process myself, so I was unfamiliar with an outline style. I put the word out in a couple of writers' communities that I belong to that I was looking for outline styles, and you wouldn't believe the varying responses that I received. Some abhor the idea of putting their plot down in III.C.1.a. form; but others? Wow. I was astounded by how much time and effort went into their 'pre-writing' process.

Their formats included various sections like 'brief intro', which should run approximately 500 words, then 'major crisis point', also to be approximately 500 words, add various 'minor crisis points', these to be approximately 250 words. Then, you have your character descriptions, and these should include every character in the story, however minor their role. These descriptions should include the character's background, role in the story, who they interact with and why, and..., etc., etc. These descriptions should also run about 500 words each. There were other categories, which included chapter by chapter breakdowns, and so on, and before you know it, you've got approximately 50 to 60 pages worth of outline. Now, they sit down to write.

Others responded with a much looser format. A paragraph describing how the story begins, the major event or crisis point, and a basic description of how the story ends. There were character descriptions, but they didn't have to be encyclopedia length. Once they drafted a rough overall sketch of their story, they were on their way.

Then, you have those who feel they may as well have their hands tied behind their backs as draft an outline. They feel as if they will be locked in to what the outline says, as if once it's written, it takes on a life of its own. There can't be any flexibility, or change in plot line or characters, and if they end up not liking the story anymore, there's no option but to finish it per the outline and then move on to another. Strange, but true.

So. What do you do? Well, let me tell you how I approached this dilemma. I still don't attempt an outline with my short stories because so far, I haven't found breaking them down into that much detail necessary as of yet. But with a novel I'm writing, the time had come for a big decision.

Now, I have already completed one that I could probably categorize as a 'novella' length project. Writing it was a lengthy process, but I wrote it from start to finish with just a few notes. But my second? That's a whole different thing. Before I began, I knew how I wanted the story to begin, had the middle pretty well worked out in my head, and I certainly know how I want it to end. But to get there? Whoa. So many characters, all necessary. So many interactions, all necessary. So many sub-plots, all necessary. All necessary components to pull this thing together. I wrote the intro and five hefty chapters and... Yeah. And, what? I got so overwhelmed with the complexity of it all, I thought to myself, try an outline.

I compromised though, and combined the complicated type with the simple type and my format runs somewhere in between. Not so involved that I am actually writing the story in outline form, but then again, no so loose that I am totally lost every time I finish writing a paragraph. And what was the result? I'm back on track with it and on my way to completion. At times, there are changes here and there, but that's okay. My outline forgives me.

So you see, the outlining process is like anything else. Too much of anything can be a bad thing; everything in moderation. If you decide not to outline, relax, create, and go with the flow. If you decide to outline, relax, create, and go with the flow. The process of telling your tale should not be a stressful one, so whatever road you take to get from start to finish, try to ride right down the middle. Makes for a really pleasureable trip.