One Quick Tip For Writing Ultra-Gripping Action Scenes In Thriller Stories

Well, since I seem to be going through a phase of reading thriller novels at the moment, I thought that I’d talk about one of the ways that these stories sometimes make their action-based scenes especially gripping and/or compelling.

In short, a truly gripping action scene is like watching someone solve a challenging puzzle. Allow me to explain…

The best action scenes will often begin with the main character in a situation where they are outnumbered, outgunned and/or faced with seemingly inevitable doom. They then have to come up with a clever strategy or a cunning plan in order to even the odds and/or to survive. The important thing in these types of scenes is that the main character can only get out of the dangerous situation by using their brains, rather than just their fists or guns.

But, why are these types of scenes so gripping? There are several reasons for this. The first is the dramatic sense of suspense that comes from placing the main character in a seemingly “impossible” situation. The second is the audience’s curiosity about how they are going to survive. The third is the exhilarating feeling of satisfaction that comes from watching the main character outwit, outfox and outsmart whoever or whatever is threatening them.

This progression from suspense, to curiosity to satisfaction is one of the best ways to keep your audience gripped during action scenes.

A good cinematic example of this is probably the first “Die Hard” movie. In this film, a policeman is trapped inside a tower that has been seized by dangerous criminals – he’s outnumbered, outgunned and in serious danger (as shown in a scene where he injures his foot). This movie is utterly gripping because he has to use tactics, strategy and planning in order to fight and defeat the criminals. He can’t just mindlessly charge through the building shooting wildly at the bad guys, because he wouldn’t survive. So, he’s faced with a challenging puzzle and the audience get to watch him solve it.

By contrast, the fifth “Die Hard” film is considerably less thrilling because it doesn’t really contain these elements. The main character is clearly shown to be immune to danger (eg: he can fall through several layers of scaffolding, crouch next to explosions etc… with barely a scratch). Likewise, whenever he is faced with adversity, he often just mindlessly shoots his way out of it, with very little in the way of strategy or planning. It really isn’t a very gripping film, even though the action scenes are designed to look “spectacular”.

So, a truly gripping action scene in a thriller story needs to be like a dangerous, difficult puzzle. It needs to be a challenge that the main character can’t solve by just mindlessly shooting or punching their way out of it. They actually need to use their brain in order to escape a dangerous situation.

Although the action/thriller genre has a reputation for being “mindless” or “stupid”, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A truly compelling action scene is much more about intelligent puzzle solving than about explosions, car chases etc… It is about watching the main character find some clever way out of a dangerous situation that can’t be resolved with mindless brute force alone.

So, think of the action scenes in your thriller story as puzzles for your main character to solve, and you’ll end up with a much more gripping story.

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Sorry for the short and repetitive article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

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Three Possible Reasons Why Famous Horror Authors Write Non-Horror Books

One of the interesting things about famous horror authors is that many of them have either written non-horror novels or they’ve moved into other genres. These non-horror stories can be really good, but this happens surprisingly often.

Whether it is Clive Barker writing several splatterpunk classics like “The Books Of Blood” and “Cabal” during the 1980s and then moving more towards fantasy and/or YA fiction (eg: the excellent “Abarat” books), whether it is when Shaun Hutson took occasional breaks from splatterpunk horror fiction during the 1990s/early 2000s to write several action/thriller novels (eg: “White Ghost”, “Exit Wounds” etc..) or whether it is when Billy Martin went from writing gothic horror and splatterpunk novels during the 1990s to writing comedy/drama/romance/food-based novels (the amazing “Liqour” series) during the 2000s, this seems to happen a lot with horror authors. Even Stephen King has apparently written several non-horror novels in various genres.

So, I thought that I’d offer some theories about possible reasons why this happens. These are just theories, based on my experiences with other types of creativity and limited experiences with writing horror fiction, but hopefully they’re at least vaguely interesting.

[Edit: Between preparing the first draft of this article and posting it, I’ve read up a bit more on the history of the horror genre and, apparently, one of the major reasons why horror authors wrote stuff in other genres during the 1990s was due to the mainstream publishing industry losing interest in the genre at the time. Still, there are other reasons why horror authors might write non-horror fiction and this article covers some of them.]

1) Inspiration: Simply put, making the same types of things too long can get dull after a while. Sometimes, in order to stay inspired, you have to make different things.

To use an art-based example, I made quite a bit of cyberpunk art last year and earlier this year. When I was making it, it was really fun to make, I felt super-inspired and produced some of what I consider to be my best paintings – like these:

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

But, after a while, I found myself drifting away from making cyberpunk art. I felt, for want of a better description, slightly bored with it. Yes, I still make cyberpunk art every now and then, and it’s still one of my favourite genres. But, if I’d have just stuck to only making cyberpunk art, then I’d probably have run out of enthusiasm for making art.

And, my guess is that the same sort of thing is probably true for famous horror authors too. As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life.

2) Emotional factors: Although I’ve dabbled with writing shorter, milder and/or more light-hearted works of horror fiction during the past few years (like these sci-fi horror stories, or this comedy horror interactive story), I once wanted to be a “proper” horror writer. And, it’s more difficult than it looks!

Simply put, writing proper genuinely scary/disturbing horror fiction can be quite hard on you emotionally if you’re doing it properly. Since you actually have to vividly imagine and plan what you write in a story, the horror is magnified considerably compared to just reading horror fiction. I mean, I remember leaving a short splatterpunk story I tried to write in 2009/10 called “Pulch” (where the narrator is slowly dissolved by a giant carnivorous plant) unfinished because I was just too grossed out by it to continue writing.

Likewise, when I wrote an unpublished horror novella in 2009 (mostly as an unofficial attempt at the “3 Day Novel” challenge), I actually found myself pulling back during one of the more grim scenes and implying, rather than showing, something horrific because I was just too horrified to keep writing the scene in question in any other way.

The thing to remember about horror fiction is that, if you’re feeling scared or grossed out when reading it, then the author probably felt those emotions even more strongly whilst writing it. As such, I can easily see why horror authors might take a break from the horror genre for the sake of their sanity.

3) Other interests: Simply put, most people have multiple interests. In fact, in order to create truly original things, you need to have multiple inspirations (and the more different they are, the more original your work will be). As such, a good horror author is probably a fan of other genres too.

So, horror authors that move away from writing horror fiction to write other types of fiction might just do this because they’re just as much of a fan of another genre as they are of the horror genre, and want to be part of that genre too. To see what their own unique interpretation of the genre would look like, and to have fun writing stories that they enjoy.

So, a horror writer moving away from horror fiction might happen because they’re also a fan of other genres too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Tips For Basing Lots Of Stories Around A Single Theme

As regular readers of this site know, I’m going through a bit of a Clive Cussler phase at the moment. If you’ve never heard of him before, he writes thriller novels that almost always seem to revolve around the sea, sailing and/or diving in some way or another. Or, to put it another way, the Clive Cussler novel I’m reading at the time of writing is literally called “Sahara” – and it still includes lots of nautical stuff. In a story about a desert!

So, this made me think about writing stories based around a theme. Although I don’t have nearly as much experience with themed storytelling as Cussler does, I’ve had some experience. For example, the short story collections I’ve written for this blog will have a theme – like last year’s “Retro Sci-Fi” Halloween stories – and I also somehow manage to make most of these blog articles about the subject of creating things, even when talking about seemingly unrelated subjects.

So, how can you come up with lots of different stories that still involve a single theme?

1) Know your theme: Simply put, you need to have a fairly good knowledge of the theme in question before using it in multiple stories. In other words, you need both research and (if possible) experience. So, choose a theme that you know a lot about. And, more importantly, one that interests you in some way or another.

And, this isn’t as difficult as you might think. After all, you almost certainly have interests and/or experiences you can draw upon. Even if your life has been fairly “ordinary”, there’s probably something interesting in there if you look hard enough. Whether it’s your encyclopedic knowledge of a particular type of music, or a hobby that you have, or some life experience that is “ordinary” to you but would be interesting to someone else etc…

And this doesn’t even have to be something ultra-dramatic in order to be interesting. If the author is really interested in the theme and can communicate that interest to the reader, then you can write interesting stories about any theme.

For example, when I was a teenager, I read about half of Jeffrey Archer’s “Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less” – which is a novel about the stock market. The stock market. And it was somehow still interesting enough to make my teenage self read half of it (and interesting enough that, for a very short while, I actually thought that stockbrokers were “cool”).

So, yes, knowing your theme really well and being genuinely interested in it is pretty much a requirement.

2) Challenge and compatibility: If you’re writing lots of stories about a single theme, then you need to keep it interesting. And you can do this by trying to make your “compatible” with seemingly unrelated things. Not only does this intrigue the reader, but it also provides an interesting “can I do this?” challenge to you too.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Clive Cussler’s “Sahara” – which I’m reading at the time of writing. This is a nautical thriller novel that revolves around the Sahara Desert. But, how does Clive Cussler do this seemingly “impossible” thing?

Well, part of the story is set on a large river that leads to the Sahara. Likewise, the main premise of the story revolves around stopping a dangerous source of water-borne contamination that has the potential to spread to the sea. Likewise, scenes where characters are stranded in the desert read a bit like descriptions of people adrift at sea etc…

So, yes, it’s possible to write a nautical novel about a desert. And I’d bet that Clive Cussler had a lot of fun when working out how to tell this seemingly “impossible” type of story.

So, trying to make your theme compatible with seemingly unrelated things can be both an interesting creative challenge and a way to make your story more interesting to your readers. At the very least, even if you mess it up, your story will still be a brilliant source of unintentional comedy.

3) The characters: Simply put, if your characters are interested in and/or experts about a particular subject, then you can include a theme in your stories reasonably easily – even in stories that seem to be totally unrelated to that theme.

The detective genre is the perfect example of this. If a character is a detective, then pretty much any story that they appear in will usually be a detective story of some kind of another. After all, they see the world from the perspective of a detective, so they’ll still be interested in solving mysteries or working out why things have happened – even if the story doesn’t involve them solving any crimes.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Don’t Show Your Audience Everything – A Ramble

Although this is an article about a technique that will make your stories, comics etc.. more intriguing and realistic, I’m going to have to spend the next few paragraphs talking about 1990s videogame nostalgia. There’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later in the article.

A couple of days before I prepared the first draft of this article, I happened to watch two online videos about the history of videogames. One made me feel old and one made me feel like I’d been part of something special. Both made me feel like I’d only seen part of something important from a distance.

One of them was this video about the fact that a survival horror game called “Resident Evil 2” was 20 years old. 20 years! Needless to say, this fact was surreal to say the least. I remember reading pre-release previews of this game in magazines, for heaven’s sake!

Even though I didn’t play this game until about three years after it was released (due to price, platform etc.. reasons), this game has had a significant role in my life history (eg: in various highly indirect ways, it played a crucial role in my current musical tastes, my tastes in fiction, my decision to be a creative person etc.. If the game hadn’t existed, I’d be a very different person). And the fact that it was 20 years old just made me feel absolutely ancient.

The other video was a retrospective of the history of the first-person shooter genre. This video contained footage from videogames from my childhood (including some SNES and N64 games), in a montage about how games evolved. As I watched this, I was filled with conflicting emotions.

I felt proud that I’d been lucky enough to grow up during a critical part of the emergence a new cultural medium. But then, I realised that my nostalgia about this montage was time-shifted somewhat. When I was playing SNES games during my 1990s childhood, the next consoles had already come out. When I was playing the Nintendo 64, the next consoles had already come out etc.. Likewise, all of the PC games in the montage were things I played at least 1-3 years after they were new.

In both cases, there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything. That I’d only glimpsed part of something great from a distance. I hadn’t played “Resident Evil 2” when it was a new game (but I’d read about it in magazines at the time). I’d only played a few key games in the history of gaming, a few years after they were new etc.. Yes, I felt glad to have grown up around these things but there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything.

Although this initially felt depressing, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a bad thing. It was simply just a part of being human. No-one can see literally everything that happens.

And, if you’re telling a story, it’s important to bear this in mind. Yes, it can be tempting to give the audience an omniscient view of literally everything and to make sure that they are present during literally every significant event in your story. But, this isn’t realistic.

By occasionally leaving a few things at a distance (eg: your characters hear about something happening after it has happened, or only see the after-effects of an important story event) or showing your characters discovering something important later than you would expect, not only do you leave more to your audience’s imaginations but you also add an extra degree of realism to your story. After all, in real life, this happens all of the time. No-one can be everywhere at once, or completely “up to date” with literally everything.

Yes, this probably has to be handled carefully in fiction (eg: yes, you should still show your audience some significant events) but it can be a way to add a bit of interest or “realism” to a story or comic.

For example, in stories, games, film etc… in the fantasy genre, some of the most significant events in a story will often be relegated to the backstory. They will be the “legends” or “myths” of a particular story, which the main characters only encounter many years after they have happened. So, this technique can be used without getting in the way of the main story too much.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Top Ten Articles – November 2018

Well, it’s the end of the month and this means that it’s time for me to compile my usual list of links to my ten favourite articles about making art, making comics, writing fiction etc… that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll include a couple of honourable mentions too.

All in all, this was a bit of a variable month in terms of articles. Not only were there more reviews than I had expected, but I had both highly-inspired days and uninspired days when writing the non-review articles. So, the quality of this month’s articles varied quite a bit. Hopefully, next month’s articles will be better 🙂

Anyway, here are the lists. Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – November 2018:

– “Want More Originality? Try Some Emotional Variation – A Ramble
– “What Can Games Teach Writers About Challenging Their Audience? – A Ramble
– “What An Old Novel Taught Me About Writing Thrilling Dialogue
– “What Tribute Bands Can Teach Us About Fan Art- A Ramble
– “Is There An Artistic Equivalent Of A “Live Version” Of A Song? – A Ramble
– “Three Tips For Remaking Your Old Webcomic Updates
– “Three Tips For Bringing Old Genres Up To Date
– “Three Random Tips For Modern 1970s-Style Storytelling
– “Four Tips For Getting Back Into Reading Regularly
– “The Library Of The Imagination – A Ramble

Honourable Mentions:

– “Why You Should Create Your Own Fictional Universe When Making Comics – A Ramble
– “How Subtle Should Dark Comedy Be? – A Ramble

Three Tips For Bringing Old Genres Up To Date

Whilst reading the book I reviewed a couple of days ago, I realised something. It was a book from 2013 that was basically a 1990s-style action movie in disguise 🙂 It surprised me that the type of films that I really wish Hollywood still made still existed… but in book form.

Not only that, the novel had also brought this old genre (eg: 1990s-style action movies) into the present day in a way that didn’t really seem too nostalgic or old-fashioned. It felt totally fresh and new, yet it was undeniably a 1990s action movie in book form.

So, this made me think about how to bring old genres up to date – and I thought that I’d offer a few tips:

1) Timeless elements: The best way to bring an old genre up to date is to look at the basic underlying elements that make the genre so distinctive. The qualities that can be quickly summed up in ten words or less. In other words, the timeless parts of the genre.

For example, with 1990s-style action movies, this would include things like: Ludicrous villain plots, non-topical drama, teams of main characters (instead of a lone hero), an optimistic attitude, interesting location choices, a friendly atmosphere, light-hearted romance, a sense of humour, making mundane things thrilling etc…

With 1980s-style cyberpunk novels, this would include things like: Information overload, jargon-heavy narration, gloomy weather, morally-ambiguous protagonists, alternative worlds (eg: cyberspace), cynicism, hyper-capitalist dystopias, fast-paced storytelling etc…

With 1980s-style splatterpunk horror novels, this would include things like: Poetic descriptions of ugly things, gory violence, the mundane mixed with the horrific, a dark sense of humour, a grim sense of poetic justice, complex background characters who die soon after they appear, lurid titillation etc..

Once you’ve found the timeless elements of an old genre (by studying it), then it’s just a simple case of writing a modern story that includes these elements. Even if your story is set in the present day and has a few differences, if you include lots of the timeless elements from an old genre, then your story will remind people of it.

2) Nostalgia: This is a bit of a complicated one. On the one hand, nostalgia is absolutely amazing. On the other hand, it can get in the way of what makes updated modern versions of old genres so fascinating – namely the feeling of discovering something new in a genre that you thought was long since gone.

After all, many of the original works in an old or forgotten genre weren’t made for nostalgia. They were made to tell stories, to entertain people and as a form of creative expression. All of the nostalgia was added later by fans. So, even if you don’t include any nostalgia, then your audience will add it anyway.

As such, don’t go overboard with nostalgia when updating an old genre if you can help it. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, too much obvious nostalgia can remind the audience that they’re looking at something based on something old – rather than getting to experience the joy of discovering a totally new work in a forgotten genre. So, be subtle about including nostalgia and don’t include too much of it.

3) Streamlining: Simply put, get rid of whatever doesn’t work whenever you’re updating an old genre. Be ruthless.

But, be sure that you have a good understanding of how an old genre works before you decide what is worth keeping. To use a videogame-based example, a lot of “awkward” design choices in old survival horror games (eg: strange camera angles, limited inventory, clumsy movement/combat controls etc..) are deliberately there to make the player feel vulnerable, and therefore even more scared.

But, if you find something that used to work in a genre (but which doesn’t work these days), then get rid of it and replace it with something that does work. One example of this that I briefly mentioned in an article a couple of days ago is how older and newer thriller novels handle things like sentence length and linguistic complexity differently.

One of the main differences between a thriller novel from the 1970s and one from the 2010s is that the old one only had to compete with films/TV, but the new one also has to compete with boxsets, smartphones, the internet, videogames etc… too. So, things like more matter-of-fact descriptions, shorter sentences and shorter chapters might mean that new thrillers aren’t the same as classic thrillers. But, they work!

These changes mean that they’re efficient and readable enough to hold their own against boxsets, games etc.. They still evoke the same emotions as older thriller novels do, but they’ve had to cut out the excess in order to keep doing this in the 21st century.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Random Tips For Modern 1970s-Style Storytelling

Although I’m much more interested in the 1990s than the 1970s – I happened to read a novel from the 1970s recently. Although I read a few second-hand 1970s novels when I was a teenager (during the 2000s), this was the first one I’ve read in quite a few years.

So, this made me think about what sets stories from the 1970s apart from more modern stories and, more importantly, how modern writers can tell 1970s-style stories.

1) Narration: When telling 1970s-style stories, the narration shouldn’t be as hyper-formal as something from the early 20th century – but it shouldn’t be too “modern” either. In other words, you should probably focus on including slightly more complex narration and descriptions (but in a slightly understated way).

To give you a comparison, here’s a descriptive sentence* from “Iceberg” (1975) by Clive Cussler: “He slowed his movement, spellbound by the strangeness of the dark colour beneath the vast shroud of blue-green water.” Notice how this is a single, longer sentence that is filled with slightly more complex language – yet, it is still very readable.

Now, here are two modern descriptive sentence from “Zero Hour” (2013) by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown: ‘Kurt noticed the hue of the water. Pink at the top but darker red as the light was absorbed.‘ Notice how this description is split into two shorter sentences and uses slightly more matter-of-fact language, yet it still manages to achieve the same level of description as the sentence from 1975 does.

So, when telling 1970s-style stories, your narration and pacing should be very slightly slower and more formal. Your sentence length should be a little bit longer too.

The thing to remember here is that books were a popular form of entertainment during the 1970s (since things like VCRs, the internet, videogames etc… weren’t widely available back then) in a way that they aren’t these days. As such, writers and readers had slightly different expectations in terms of formality, pacing etc… during the 1970s than they do today.

(* And, yes, the quote is from a UK edition of “Iceberg”, hence the spelling of “colour”. The original US edition probably uses US spellings. Interestingly, spelling localisation in UK editions seems to be less common these days than it was in the past.)

2) Content, censorship and moral standards:
Ok, this is a little bit of a complicated one.

Basically, the 1970s was a decade where book censorship was no longer a major issue (in Britain at least). However, when writing modern 1970s-style fiction, you need to make a distinction between traditional censorship issues (eg: profanity, horror, violence etc..) and modern moral standards (eg: about discrimination etc..) because the two things have to be handled in very different ways.

When it comes to traditional censorship issues like horror, violence, drug use, scenes of an adult nature, profanity etc… you can be as intense or as subtle as you would normally choose to be. Official censorship of these sorts of things in literature ended in Britain with the “Lady Chatterley” trial in 1960 and, of course, the US has the first amendment too.

If you don’t believe me, then read “Crash” by J. G. Ballard (1973) or “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson (1971). The toned-down 1990s film adaptations of these 1970s novels still have an “18 certificate” to this day (and the adaptation of “Crash” was even banned from some cinemas in London) – so, the 1970s certainly wasn’t a prudish or censorious decade with regard to literature.

However, “historically inaccurate” as it may be, it is a very good idea to apply modern standards to topics like discrimination, prejudice etc.. when writing new 1970s-style stories. This is because your modern 70s-style stories are still modern stories and will be judged by modern standards by a modern audience.

So, if you’re just writing a 1970s style story, it is best to leave 1970s-style attitudes out of it altogether. If you’re writing a historical story set in the 1970s, then the generally accepted rule seems to be that, whilst 1970s-style attitudes can be described/shown, they must be presented in a critical way (and, usually, shouldn’t be held by the main character). Likewise, whilst you can critically show dated attitudes, avoid using dated language (eg: insults etc…) wherever possible.

3) Technology: Yes, technology was less advanced during the 1970s. However, if you actually read stories from the 1970s, this is barely mentioned at all. After all, why would it be? I mean, most modern stories don’t include characters bemoaning the lack of futuristic holograms, cyborgs, flying cars etc….

So, when telling a 1970s-style story, just be a little bit subtle or understated about the technology. Just treat 1970s technology in the same “ordinary”, understated way that we often tend to think about modern technology.

After all, a lot of the underlying elements haven’t changed that much – I mean, a newspaper and a news site do basically the same thing. A landline phone and a smartphone both allow for phone calls. Cars fulfil the same role today as they did during the 1970s. The military, some police officers, hunters/farmers, violent criminals etc… still use guns (which haven’t really changed mechanically in decades). A vinyl record and a MP3 file both contain recorded music. A document can be typed on a typewriter or a computer. People still drink in pubs/bars etc..

Yes, you might have to make the occasional substitution, but it isn’t as difficult as you might think. For example, if a character hears an important piece of breaking news then just show them hearing it on the radio or the television (or have another character tell them the news), rather than showing them seeing it on the internet. I’m sure you get the idea.

Not only that, the technological limitations of the past can actually result in better stories. For example, detective stories where detectives have to rely on clever questioning and Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning rather than just using modern forensic technology. Or thriller stories that are more suspenseful because the main character can’t just call for backup on their mobile phone etc….

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂