Experimenting With Horror

Can you tell it's going to be a scary book?

Can you tell it’s going to be a scary book?

I’ve been experimenting with horror/monster fiction lately as I wander through the vast fields of literary options, seeking to settle myself into a comfortable niche. So far, I kind of like it here in Scaresville, finding its sweet spot between the need for fanciful creations and tried and tested settings a very appealing one.

Without even noticing it, I’ve realised that most of my last few half-written stories in the last few weeks have been steering towards that direction. More importantly, I also come to see that I’m to focus on the story from the get go instead of trying to describe or make up the world.  I can express my fiction beyond the limitations of natural laws, yet have a grounded setting that can be typical without being branded as overly cliche.

It’s just something that the reader has come to accept and expect in this genre, that it is ok for Regular Joe to have a couple of coffee in the morning, run into some weird monsters in the afternoon, and save the world in time to have dinner. Rinse and repeat. In fact, if you take the same story, change up the monster/ghost/murderer, it will usually still work without any need for lengthy explanation.

My Journey towards Horror

I originally wanted to go with fantasy, but my beef with it is that it’s become boxed in to a expected set of creatures and myths. E.g. a clean-shaven dwarf who wields a mean bow, prancing through the forest and enjoys strawberries immediately breaks the mould, and you have to try to justify it, i.e. he was raised by the elves etc. Wide universe, but extremely boxed-in.

Then I tried my hand at Science Fiction. Immediately, I found it unsuitable for the shorter kind of fiction that I like. The best ones need to be grand, need a lot of believable science or nonsense leading up to the big reveal and are generally one trick ponies as I have mentioned in my Michael Crichton article. If you read those that succeed like Philip K. Dick (Minority Report) or H.G. Wells (World of the Worlds), they’re actually thrillers / war stories with a sci-fi setting.

My last attempt was actually peeking into the realm of superhero fiction. Maybe it’s just me again, but I kept facing the same issues as in Sci-Fi, while basing my characters off popular ones, so that people already have a picture in their head when I mention them. A crutch I eventually felt that I did not like.

So yea horror. Smooth going so far, though my problem now is the climax. Just a series of smaller battles leading to the big one ala Godzilla, or hold off the violence and make the violent erupt as a build up to the climax ala King Kong. I’m not going to try Stephen’s King arbitrary-in-your-head sort of horror for now. Just going to go with something physical first to muddy the waters.

Journey Through The Darkness

Journey Through The Darkness

My thoughts about the Genre

The best ones all play tricks in your head. They don’t always need to be unexpected, as long as it’s screwed up enough such that the twist that eventually comes still feels satisfying enough. That’s the sweet spot I mentioned earlier. People already know what to expect, yet you still have the liberty to throw a few bones at them and make them crave for more. Readers who complain about typical plots / writing shouldn’t be reading books on murder and monsters anyway while still complaining about the plot. That’s like complaining about Dwarves are cliche in a fantasy realm.

–  The monster isn’t important, the story is. Like superheroes, people already expect the monster to be just that, a monster. It kills people, they know. A man with a knife, he’s going to kill someone. I’ve tried to make my creatures sound or scary, and tried to make my setting more fascinating. But in the end, at the meat is still going to be the story. Origins is an extremely popular topic that readers love, followed by the typical agendas on why it does what it does. Whether the freaky clowns nose is red and round or green with snot doesn’t really matter beyond the initial visualisation. Oh, and the gimmick that your creature does, makes the story interesting, but doesn’t make the story.

Always start with the mundane. A fascinating monster in a bombastic setting sort of takes away the focus from the appearance of a monster/killer. Stick with the mundane or a concept that can be easily understood to make your creature and the story around it stand out.

For example:

The Midnight Snack. 

Peter walks into the kitchen, looking for a snack. In the dark, he notices the carton of chocolate milk sitting on the counter and his eyes perk up. One of the kids must have left it behind while they were packing for their sleepover. Without so much as a thought, he unscrews its top off and chugs it straight from the carton, wondering where the hell his wife is. She was suppose to be back from her book club at eleven.

In the dark, he fails to notice that the red liquid trickling down his chin.

This milk tastes a bit salty, he thinks to himself, smacking his lips as he wipes the dribble off with a hand. Probably just another one of those new fangled flavours that the kids love. Satisfied now, he walks back up the stairs to prepare for a good night’s sleep.

Halfway up though, his stomach starts to gurgle and churn. Not feeling so good, he sits on the steps and rubs his tummy. Wait what’s that bump? Lifting up his shirt he stares at his flabby skin and the tiny lump thumping vigorously at him from the inside.

If anyone of you noticed, yes I took the same plot from my earlier story and just plonked it here with a different setting. Still sort of works. 

Other great posts about Horror on WordPress

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Why Should My Characters Be Unique?

StereotypeContinuing along the theme of characterisation from my previous post yesterday, a question about stereotyping popped out in my mind today: How necessary is it to have fancy characters?  

Now, for the purpose of this topic, let’s not confuse stereotyping with boring. How interesting a character turns out is really up to the skill of the writer and the setting. Dan Brown’s characters are as stereotypical as they come, but Robert Langdon and the white albino killer priest are still as entertaining as hell. He brings the tweed-loving Professor to life.

When creating a character for your story, should the protagonist be:

  • The Stereotype –  Ideal skill set needed or appears for the plot to be fulfilled.
  • Typical with a Twist – That uniqueness gives a selling point in the story.
  • Unique –  Totally against the grain, needs a lot of explanation & backstory.

Quick! Think of an answer before reading ahead. 

Done?

Good.

My guess is most of you went with Typical with a Twist. It seems like the most sensible answer right?  I did too, so I went ahead to compile a list of recent media that would fit into these three archetypes:

The Stereotype

  • Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)
  • Robert Langdon (Da Vinci Code) – Basically all of Dan Brown books
  • Almost all the protagonist in Michael Crichton books
  • Almost all the protagonist in Sidney Sheldon books
  • Almost all the protagonist in Danielle Steele books
  • James Bond  / Jason Bourne / Most spies and thrillers
  • Chosen Ones – Harry Potter / Luke Sky Walker / Hobbit (One trick flawed characters)

Typical with a Twist

  • Dexter (TV show) / Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) / Actually most TV stars who play up a particular gimmick
  • The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo
  • Tyrion Lannister (Game Of Thrones)

Absolutely Unique

  • Fantasy / Space-travel themed fiction (which requires A LOT of backstory to explain, except the all t00 familiar chosen one concept)
  • Comic Book Heroes (Reason why there is always a origins somewhere)
  • 50 shades of Grey (sort of, in the perverse sense)

My perspective

When I was compiling this list, I thought I would have a lot of characters to put under Twist. But towards the end, with a bit of analyzing, I shifted most of them into Stereotype instead. What I have initially believed to be special points, turns out to be bland character profiles when you compare it to the genre at large.

Case in point: I initially wanted to throw Jason Bourne into the Twist category, but then I realise this – Even if the book did away with all the drug/virus nonsense and just put Jason Bourne as a escaped patient from a super-soldier program, would there be any confusion or grumbling? No, people have already learnt to accept such story lines without explanation. True, that would defeat the purpose of the story, but it seemed like the Jason Bourne was created to accommodate the story rather than the other way around.

Then I looked at all the characters that I have left in the Twist category. I realised that by giving the character a gimmick or handicap, it usually means the story is catering to the character instead of the other way around. (Big Bang Theory is extremely guilty of feeding Sheldon juicy scenarios for example). Plots that seem to be created SPECIFICALLY for that character instead of the other way round.

And for the unique ones, well let’s just say there’s a reason why a quarter of the book/movie is usually devoted to just explaining the settings and the characters. By which point, you learn everything about them and they stop being unique since you just read 100 pages of who they are.

Get to the point!

My point is – Often, when I read a writer’s or novelist guide to characters, it’s often advised that we have a ready bank of characters to use to insert into our stories.

Then I look at the bestsellers I see this:

Michael Crichton – Oh I have a scene with poisonous spiders, ok Character B shall be a specialist Spider-Guru.

Suzanne Collins – Oh I need to give my character a weapon she can use, insert backstory about how Katniss’s father taught her how to shoot.

Danielle Steele – I need to my character to be rich and sexy as hell! Cue chapter 3 flashback to a rags to riches story about her father and her tragic mother.

Honestly, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about half of the writer guides out there on how to write characters. To me now, it’s pretty clear that I should have a unique setting, then develop a stereotypical character perfect for the setting. To make him interesting, as stated in my previous post again, talk about Birth/History, Pain, Rise To Fame, Current, Feelings. That backstory can be unique, you’re character itself shouldn’t, he should be PERFECT for the story (with a splash of tragedy).

I don’t have a conclusion to this post, since it’s just a niggling thought in my head that I wanted to get out. But I thought this would make a good discussion point either now or in future. I intend to revisit the importance of characters in telling a story in future. For now, I’m skipping the character development step in my writing until I flesh out my story and know what kind of character I need to fill the story.

Thoughts? Again note, please do not mix up stereotype with boring.

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Ernest Hemingway: How to Write Fiction

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Saw this recent posting on the Open Culture website. It’s an article that referenced the compilation Ernest Hemingway On Writing on some of the best advice Hemingway ever gave to aspiring writers. While Hemingway never really published any material specifically targeted at educating writers, he did write several interesting things about his opinions on writing through various sources in his lifetime.

This article is not a writer’s guide per se, and don’t expect it to be. It’s about Hemingway talking about how he works and why he writes the way he writes. I enjoyed reading it very much, and if nothing else, this article gives you a brief glimpse into the minds of one of the literary greats of our time. To me, that’s more important than a random person of the internet trying to teach me how to write in a step 1 to 10 fashion. I’m not a particular fan of his work, but he does give personal anecdotes on several writing rules or habits that you might have heard of, or even perhaps, are using right now.

I particularly appreciate this one:

6: Use a pencil

If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.

Even though I do not practice writing with a pencil, due to my god-awful handwriting (I failed an economics paper before due to illegible handwriting), I still enjoy the practice of writing and rewriting my work. Whether I’m making the story any better is not something I can comment on, but I find I can make the story flow smoother through rewriting.

Take a gander at the article if like to see his personal interpretation of the writing rules. You can find it here on the Open Culture site – Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

P.S: Why do successful novelists all look so scholarly? Maybe it’s time to splurge for a nice pair of reading glasses to give myself that intense sophisticated look.

The Book Case: Return Of The Novella

20130301-000404.jpgThis was a fun little quick read. I believe the word count is close to 17,000. The writing style is extremely fast and fluent in this story, except towards the end as in the case for most detective mysteries when too many things must happen for the story to wrap up.

I’m usually not a fan of detective work since it tends to plod on before the author throws everything at you at once (the big ah-ha! moment), but I’m still highlighting this book because Demille’s writing style in this book is something I wish to aspire towards someday. Full of dry wit, random nonsense and little quirks that does not take away too much from the story. He was using an old character from his previous series though, so do not expect too much character descriptions and background here.

Also, I have been intrigued by this medium-length sort of effort lately. Quick reads that resemble more of an episode of Big Bang Theory instead of a 3 hour long movie epic. Maybe it is just me or a passing fad, but I think with how reading habits are forming up in the past few years, shorter more-to-the-point work might be the new thing here. Maybe I should give the 15,000 mark a whirl and see how it goes.

Ten Fiction Pitfalls

PitfallWow, these writing guides sure are making me feel bad right now. Guilty of all of them, especially number 5 and 8 which I am trying to rectify after reading the previous guide I’ve posted before this. Maybe I should put a sub-menu on the writing guides for my own reference and take out my amateurish exercises.

5. Don’t label characters Writers must describe characters, but often they simply use one-word labels, such as: “She was beautiful,” or “He was brilliant.” Labels are not descriptions. Instead, really describe a character’s physical attributes, and let readers draw their own conclusions. Example: Don’t label a woman by writing: She was drop-dead gorgeous. Truly describe her, as in this: Sara, slender, and about five-eight, seemed taller, in her high-heeled shoes. A pink sweater accentuated her curves. She shook her wavy blond hair and smiled, revealing glistening teeth. Sara murmured in a soft, sensuous voice, “I’ll have a Bloody Mary—lots of celery.” She laughed lightly. “I haven’t had lunch.” Similarly, don’t label a man by writing: He was unusually handsome. Provide descriptive details: Robert, a muscular six feet tall, rested a white-gloved hand on Sara’s bare arm. A red cummerbund contrasted with his white tuxedo and white patent-leather shoes. In a clipped English accent he told the bartender, “Bristol Cream Sherry.” Read the rest here – Ten Fiction Pitfalls