How Horror Handicaps Your Writing – Don’t Do This (New Article Series)

I'm starting a new series of writing-craft articles called "Don't Do This", taking an in-depth look at some of the more dubious choices made by published authors and TV/film writers/directors/editors, and the reasons you don't want to copy them without knowing exactly what these elements will cost your story.

I want to do this without any nastiness towards my fellow authors - so, where the examples in question come from books, I am going to block out identifying details and show only the actual issue I'm discussing. I would ask commenters to please avoid shouting out the book title and/or author if they recognise the material (and I will censor comments that don't abide by this request).

I will, however, identify commercially-successful Movies and TV shows I use as examples. These have a slew of professionals working on every aspect of production and therefore I think it is fair game to call them on their weaknesses. Secondly, there is greater likelihood that popular shows/movies have already been seen, so spoilers are less of an issue, and there is more chance to learn from specific examples. I will attempt to create a non-spoiler generic summary, though.

First up is Horror. Kristen Lamb wrote a blog post explaining How Horror Fiction Can Make Us Better Writers. I both agree and disagree with Kristen's theory. Horror handicaps a story, by distancing the reader/audience. So, yes, it can make you a better writer because you have to work harder.  But a writer who doesn't understand this handicap can get stuck in a cycle of attempting to increase the body count and the gore level, more graphically describing violence, and inventing new and improved ways of shocking their readers.

I explain my reasoning in detail using the TV show Fortitude as an example, here:

The Problem with Horror - a Critique of Fortitude

and here is the spoiler-free summary:

For Drama's Sake, Don't Write Horror


When Someone Else Writes Your Idea

I’ve faced this issue multiple times: I've had a great idea for a story – perhaps I've even started writing it – and then I happen to pick up an already-published book, or watch a movie or TV show, and there’s my story smirking back at me.

I’m convinced my so-called muse got fed up with me a few years ago and packed up and astro-travelled to Hollywood where she happily provided the scriptwriters of the StarGate shows with all my ideas. In my first few years of my writing career I scrapped a good half-dozen ideas after seeing them realised on that franchise.

Now I know I needn’t have hit delete after all. As disconcerting as it is to discover that other writers have a similar thought process to you, it’s important to realise that almost all of our ideas are derivative. According to Georges Polti, there are only thirty-seven dramatic plot strand definitions around which a plot-based story can be constructed.

The solution to the dilemma of writing something that turns out to be similar to another story that you may not even have read or know about is characterisation. It is your characters who make your story unique. Give your characters strong, convincing motivations and allow your plot to move fluidly based on the actions of the characters. It is your unique perspective that shapes your characters (even if they’re nothing like you) and therefore your story will be unique if you put character first and plot second.

Luckily I saved some of my favourite characters from the stories I scrapped and found a new story for them to drive. But going forward I’ll be less inclined to panic and delete when I discover someone else has already used my idea.

How about you? Did you find this helpful? Are you caught up in the mire of writing a novel? Frustrated by the blinking cursor? Depressed by your blank pages, soggy plot, or characters who've gone on strike?

My Fully Booked Programme is designed to help you at every point in the creation process - not just the dreaded editing phase. I assess your story and you start the programme with the action you need to take next... with a developmental editor helping you every step of the way.

You can click here to go find out more or join the programme.


More on Point of View

I'm still reading Inkspell* (don't laugh! I'm also reading Life of Pi* and Playful Parenting* and I only get a few minutes a day to gulp down a page or so), but I'm finding this a very interesting example of a multiple viewpoint book. It is addressing a lot of issues I was exploring in my planning.

  • The need (or not) for symmetry: trying to arrange equal "airtime" for all the viewpoint characters. This is what a planner's heart wants to aim for, but organically it flows better if symmetry is not forced.
  • Using a different point of view at each chapter change (or not). In Inkspell some chapters continue with the same viewpoint character for three or four chapters, which I like as it allows a little more time to get to know some of the characters.
  • How long can a character be left in limbo before the reader starts to wonder what happened, or, gasp, forgets about that particular character? One character in Inkspell is badly wounded and we don't return to this story strand for 43 pages. I found the gap a bit long; I thought one of the later check-in chapters could've been brought in earlier without affecting the timeline.
  • Character dominance. Where several characters are viewpoint characters in their respective chapters, who takes precedence for point of view when these characters meet in a chapter? A few times in Inkspell the dominance is chosen for one chapter with the following chapter told from the point of view of the other character. There is no omniscience or mixing of viewpoints.
  • The viewpoint character is quite clearly established within the first line or two of each chapter in most cases.

I think with just three viewpoint characters I will have a much easier time getting a little bit of that symmetry I'm after while retaining the sense of flow.

*Book Depository is a better option for non-US book buyers.


Standing Alone

Since I made the decision to turn my trilogy into a stand alone novel I've been trying to choose between the options of interweaving the three related stories or running them separately as Parts 1, 2, and 3.

My heart likes the former. It will make for a fuller, rounder story, and it will take more writing skill. My head likes the latter option. It's easier and means all I need to do is shorten book one and tag books two and three on the end.

The other issue my head has with interweaving the three stories is that I don't get to write swathes of the book from one point of view at a time. This is something I really love about my draft of the first third of the book; there is only one viewpoint throughout and it makes for a very personal and intense ride. I'm reluctant to lose that. But my original trilogy idea involved three characters each with his or her own book told entirely from a single viewpoint. Now the three story strands are tied together with a theme that makes them far stronger and with that comes three different viewpoints.

So, subconsciously, I went looking for examples of stories told from multiple viewpoints. First I was reminded of Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders Trilogy, which I found rich with the layers of characters each thinking theirs was the life that was important and worth fighting for. But I also remember the frustration of having to leave a character at a crucial moment in order to ride with the next character. I felt taken against my will until I settled again into the story. But Liveship used many characters' viewpoints; with only three I will be able to treat my readers to a number of chapters in one viewpoint at a time.

That was in the back of my mind yesterday when I picked up Inkspell* by Cornelia Funke; a much simpler book and one that has the same reader age range as my story. It was much easier to see my dilemma tackled in a book like this, and handled satisfactorily. Inkspell's viewpoint characters have as many chapters as necessary to follow a plot strand until there is a logical segue to the next character. There is no rigidity to locking the characters into a single chapter at a time because the next chapter must switch point of view. It's fluid, and I think that comes from the way it was written: Funke says that she free wrote this book so quickly she could barely type fast enough to keep up with the story.

Another trilogy told from alternate viewpoints is Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy*. Although there are only two viewpoint characters in the first book, and three in the second and third, the viewpoint character's name appears in the header of every page of the chapters he or she owns so the reader always knows whose story is being told. So this is another way of presenting it. However, what I did find slightly off putting is that the author relies on this to alert the reader so that he doesn't have to start the chapter with the viewpoint character's name. But the header doesn't appear on the first page of a chapter so occasionally it requires turning the page to check which character we're on in order to imagine the scene properly. I think I would rather just use the character's name in the first line.

So my plan of attack is to continue writing the rest of this story from whichever point of view is required, preferably several chapters per character though. Then when I have a rough first draft completed I will redo my synopsis and fit in parts of the second book (which I'd already started before deciding to consolidate), and then work out where I need to write scenes from the point of view of the second and third characters to slot into the first part. And sand and varnish.

I think it's doable.

*Book Depository is a better option for non-US book buyers.


Literary Fiction versus Popular Fiction

My dear friend Lauri over at Thoughts From Botswana wrote an interesting post on Literary Fiction versus Popular Fiction. These are my thoughts in response:

For me plot is art. Characterisation and character relationships are art. There is a real art to constructing a work of fiction that both shows and tells a compelling story with characters the reader can feel, but without the reader being aware of the scaffolding involved in such construction. I agree with John Grisham's points that you don't want to distract the reader; you want him to become absorbed in your book.

That said, there is poetry and beautiful writing that also stands as art, and stands out because it is beautiful. It does tend to be distracting, in a good way. There is a limit, I think, on what type of story one can tell entirely with writing that is meant to be savoured for itself. Certainly not a fast-paced or suspenseful story.

I haven't read Dan Brown's book, but I suspect if Pullman has noticed the writing style, this means one or both of two things: either Brown's writing construction is too obvious, or Pullman reads like a writer and is overly sensitive to scaffolding.