Three Reasons Why Great Stories Include Variation

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one of the essential ingredients of a great story – variation. In other words, how great stories will often contain an interesting mixture of different genres, different emotional tones, different levels of formality, types of pacing etc… during different parts of the story.

Variation is an important part of storytelling because, on the most basic level, it prevents the reader from becoming bored. When done well, it prevents your story from becoming predictable or repetitive. However, it is an important part of a good story for so many other reasons too. Here are a few of them.

1) Contrast: To use a visual metaphor, this is a little bit like how a bright light in a painting or photo will look even brighter when placed against a dark background. Because the gap between the lightest and darkest part of the picture is fairly large, the light looks brighter by comparison. And, the same principle is true in fiction too.

For example, S. K. Dunstall’s “Linesman” is a fairly slow-paced sci-fi novel about intergalactic politics. So, on the few occasions that the novel includes thrillingly action-packed scenes, these scenes seem about twice as fast-paced because they are contrasted with lots of slower-paced scenes.

Likewise, Ryu Murakami’s “In The Miso Soup” (SPOILERS ahoy!) is an atmospheric horror novel that mostly relies on things like suspense and atmosphere to unnerve the audience.

As such, when the novel includes a single splatterpunk-style scene of gory horror, this scene is about ten times more shocking because it is so different to the rest of the novel.

So, including variation in your story allows you to place emphasis on certain scenes through the use of contrast. Not only that, a good amount of contrast can also make your story seem more dramatic as a whole too.

2) Progression: Simply put, variation makes your story flow better. Likewise, because the story moves from one genre or emotional tone to another several times, it will have a sense of movement and momentum to it that can give the reader a real feeling of progression.

This also means that your story will feel larger or more detailed too. For example, at the time of writing this article, I’m about halfway through reading a novel called “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” by Jodi Taylor (mild SPOILERS ahead).

In the first half or so of this novel, the story goes from mysterious suspense to comedic sci-fi/historical fiction to a heist thriller to an understated drama to a dramatic thriller. And it feels epic.

Because it crams so many genres into a relatively small space (about 160-170 pages), the first half of this novel feels larger and longer than it actually is. So, when done well, variation allows your reader to feel like they’ve progressed through a longer story than they actually have.

3) Originality: Although there is no such thing as a “100% Original” creative work, the feeling of originality comes from seeing an interesting and distinctive mixture of different things. In other words, originality isn’t about coming up with entirely new things, it is about doing something different with stuff that people already know about.

So, coming up with an inventive way to mix scenes from different genres, to mix different moods etc… can really make your story stand out from the crowd. It will also make your story more memorable too.

A good example of this is probably “Make Me” by Lee Child (again, SPOILERS ahoy!).

For the most part, this novel is a fairly typical suspense-thriller/action-thriller novel with some vaguely ominous background elements. Then, during one of the later parts of the story, the novel suddenly turns into full-on horror fiction. Although there is a fair amount of foreshadowing, this switch to another genre really catches the reader by surprise and means that the novel’s shocking ending is about ten times more memorable than the ending of a typical thriller novel.

So, yes, variation will add originality to your story and/or make it more memorable.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Lessons Writers Can Learn From 1980s Horror Fiction

Ah, 1980s horror fiction 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party when I discovered books from this awesome period of literary history in second-hand bookshops and charity shops as a teenager during the early-mid ’00s, I felt like writing about them today.

This is mostly because I’m currently re-reading one of these awesome books (Clive Barker’s 1988 novel “Cabal”) at the moment, and because some of my visits to charity shops in the months before writing this article have shown me that these awesome books seem to have fallen outside the usual 1-30 year delay between new books and charity shops.

Anyway, I digress. So, what can 1980s horror novels teach us about writing?

1) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: Although 1980s horror novels have something of a reputation for being a “trashy” genre of fiction, they are a lot more descriptive and linguistically sophisticated than you might think. Even though you’ll find that older novels in general tend to have a more extensive and formal vocabulary than popular modern novels do, this is especially true in 1980s horror fiction.

To give you an example, here’s a random description from Clive Barker’s “Cabal”: ‘The sun gleamed on the mausoleums, the sharp shadows flattering their elaboration.‘ This almost sounds like something from a revered 19th century novel, yet it is from a novel that looks like this:

This is the 1989 Fontana (UK) paperback edition of “Cabal”

So, what can this teach us? In addition to showing us how contrasting “beautiful” formal descriptions with scenes of horror can make these scenes more dramatic, it also reminds us that it’s ok to use long words and well-placed formal descriptions. Your readers are smarter than you might think. Remember, these horror novels were “trashy” popular entertainment during the 1980s.

2) Don’t self-censor: At the time of writing this article, I was still in the middle of a longer horror fiction project of mine and I was starting to worry that the scenes of horror were too gruesome. Then, I started re-reading “Cabal” and I realised that what I was writing was actually pretty tame compared to a typical 1980s horror novel. In other words, what I’d described in a couple of sentences or paragraphs, an 80s horror novel would devote at least half a page to.

So, the lesson here is don’t self-censor. Although, thanks to things like slightly less repressive film censorship, modern fiction doesn’t really have the same impetus or reason to be ultra-edgy that it did during the 1980s, it is always important to remember that fiction is one of the most free and open storytelling mediums out there.

In other words, if what you are writing is essential to your story, then keep it in and don’t self-censor. After all, you aren’t making a film or a videogame, you’re writing a story and the written word has more freedom than other storytelling mediums do.

3) Presentation matters: I’ve talked about this before, but one of the many awesome things about 1980s horror novels is the fact that they are works of art. Almost without fail, the cover art will be a wonderful piece of dramatic, high-contrast art that wouldn’t look out of place on a film poster or a heavy metal album cover. Seriously, old horror novel cover from the 1970s-90s (and maybe the early-mid 2000s) just look really cool:

And, yes, the Shaun Hutson cover is a 2000s reprint, but it looks awesome nonetheless.

Likewise, some old horror novels will do cool things like – in many of Shaun Hutson’s novels – including dramatic epigrams featuring everything from historical quotes to (if the publisher can afford it) quotes from heavy metal song lyrics. Likewise, old horror novels from the 1980s will often have really dramatic-sounding titles too, like “The Undead”, “Scorpion”, “Plasmid” etc.. too.

So, yes, although the story itself is the most important thing, presentation also matters too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three More Thoughts About How To Make Zombie Stories Scary

Although the zombie genre is probably one of the least scary genres of horror fiction out there, it is a lot of fun to both read and write. So, although I’ve probably looked at this topic before, I thought that I’d list several more ways to make zombie fiction a bit more scary.

1) Distances: Unless your story contains modern-style fast-moving zombies, one of the problems with zombie stories is that the easiest way for a character to save themselves from a slow-moving zombie is just to run away and/or find somewhere that the zombie can’t climb or walk into.

Likewise, although large groups of zombies can add suspense to a zombie story, there isn’t really that much suspense or horror in scenes showing well-armed characters fighting zombies from a safe distance (for a good cinematic example of this, watch “Resident Evil: Apocalypse“).

So, if you want to make your zombies a bit scarier, then focus on close-up scenes involving zombies. Have the zombie suddenly appear out of nowhere or place the main characters in situations where they can’t run away or attack the zombie from a safe distance. If your main character is in imminent danger of being eaten by a zombie, then this instantly adds a lot of suspense and horror to the scene in question.

In short, zombies aren’t that scary if they are a couple of hundred metres away from your characters. They are scary if they are only a few centimetres away from your characters.

2) Comedy: I’ve talked about this topic before, but there’s a good reason why horror stories will often include comedy elements too. In short, it is all about emotional contrast.

Scenes of horror will seem twice as shocking or scary if the audience has been laughing before they happen. The emotional gap between cheerful laughter and shocked horror is much larger than the gap between a more neutral mood and shocked horror.

So, including a fair amount of comedic moments in your zombie story can make the more gruesome and horrific moment seem even more shocking or horrific by comparison. This is especially important in the zombie genre, since your readers will probably already be familiar with the genre and are unlikely to find zombies particularly frightening on their own. So, emotional contrast is even more important than usual.

3) Implied horror: Zombie stories are one of the most gruesome genres of horror fiction out there. They are the closest thing we have to the classic splatterpunk horror novels of the 1980s these days. However, fans of the zombie genre have gotten used to all of this and, as such, are a lot more difficult to shock with hyper-detailed gruesome descriptions.

So, whilst your zombie story should include some grisly moments (since it’s kind of expected), don’t be afraid to leave things to the reader’s imagination sometimes. Scary horror is all about playing with the reader’s expectations and, if your readers are expecting a scene of ultra-gruesome horror, then a more subtle or implication-filled description can really catch them off-guard.

If you’ve already included a few gruesome moments in your story, then suddenly not showing one can also make the story scarier because your audience already knows what you will show. So, if you don’t show something, then your audience are going to imagine that it is considerably more gruesome than this (even if it isn’t).

Likewise, if you include a lot of implied horror in the earlier parts of your story, then a sudden moment of ultra-gruesome horror can also catch your readers off-guard and cause them to be a lot more shocked than they would be if they read a similar scene in a more consistently gruesome zombie novel.

So, a few well-selected moments of implied horror can really add a bit of extra horror and shock value to your zombie story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When Is It Ok To “Break The Rules” In Your Writing?

One of the interesting things that I noticed in the novel that I reviewed yesterday was that it often “breaks the rules” in all sorts of interesting ways (eg: making up new words, breaking the fourth wall, using a film script-like format for dialogue segments etc…) and, surprisingly, this actually works really well.

So, naturally, this made me wonder when it is ok to “break the rules” when writing fiction. And, I would argue that there are three criteria that you must think about before deciding to do something a bit different in your story.

It is ok to “break the rules” when it improves your story, when it emerges organically from the story you are telling and/or when what you are doing is easily understood by your readers. Out of these three things, the first and third are the most important.

If you remember these three things, then you’ll know whether it is ok to do something a bit quirky or uncommon in your story. For example, the film script-like dialogue segments in the novel that I mentioned earlier (“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero) fit into all three of these criteria.

Firstly, the script-like formatting removes a lot of superfluous speech tags and descriptions – which makes the dialogue flow faster. Secondly, it fits in well with the TV show-style theme of the story (and doesn’t seem too out-of-place). Thirdly, most readers have seen scripts before and won’t have too much trouble understanding one.

Likewise, the novel’s made-up words also fit into these criteria too. Firstly, they allow for more unique descriptions. Secondly, they fit in with the slightly eccentric and informal atmosphere of the story. Thirdly, they are often made up from pre-existing words or used in a context where their meaning is obvious. So, the reader can usually understand what Cantero is trying to say.

In short, you need to think about your reader first and foremost. If breaking the rules makes the story more readable or interesting for them, then break the rules. However, if breaking the rules leaves your readers feeling confused or is something that you’re just doing to show off, then think twice about it.

And, yes, although you might understand the reasons for doing something a bit more weird and/or experimental, you need to be sure that your reader does too. In other words, you need to be a reader yourself – since seeing both good and bad examples of this sort of thing in other people’s writing can help you to see your own story from your reader’s perspective.

Another thing to remember is that “the rules” are there to make stories enjoyable and understandable for readers. If you are able to find a way to break the rules that still allows your readers to enjoy and understand your story, then don’t be afraid to do it. But, again, remember to think about things from your reader’s perspective.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Benefits Of Setting Your Story In The 1980s And/Or 1990s

Well, since I’m reading a horror/comedy novel set in the early 1990s (“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero) and because I was also experimenting with a writing project set in the 1980s, I thought that I’d talk about a few of the benefits of setting your story in the 1980s-90s.

1) Phones and the internet: This is a fairly obvious one, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. Although basic mobile phones were starting to become more common during the mid-late 1990s, one of the defining features of these two decades is the fact that the world didn’t revolve around mobile phones, social media etc… This has all sorts of benefits when it comes to storytelling.

The fact that your characters can’t just phone anyone anywhere means that suspenseful scenes become more suspenseful. After all, if your characters are in danger, then they either have to find a phone (of the landline or payphone variety) or come up with some kind of plan. Likewise, it also makes mysteries more mysterious too, since your characters can’t just whip out a smartphone and look online for information. In other words, they actually have to do proper old-fashioned research and investigation.

Plus, although the web was a thing during the 1990s, it was a lot less common and/or developed (it was also a lot slower too, and made this noise when you connected to it). As such, there wasn’t really the kind of mainstream online/social media culture that there is these days.

I could go on for quite a while, but the lack of things like social media, smartphones etc… means that stories set in the 1980s/90s can often have a lot more suspense, personality, nuance etc… than stories set in the modern world.

2) It isn’t that difficult to write: Although you’ll probably have the annoying experience of thinking of an awesome 80s/90s pop culture reference to add to your historical story, only to look online and realise that it refers to something that existed a year or two after when the story takes place, it is easier to write historical stories set in these decades than in other decades.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, even if you don’t actually have any memories of the year that your story is set in, there’s a very good chance that you’ve encountered a lot of things from this time period without even realising it. After all, if you grew up in the 1990s or the 2000s, then films/books/TV shows/music etc… from the 1980s/90s were still fairly recent back then. So, you probably already know more about these decades than you think.

Secondly, these decades are recent enough to still be vaguely similar to our current world. So, if you write a fairly “timeless” story with a few subtle nostalgic details and a little bit of historical awareness (eg: about things like mobile phones, historical events etc..), then it will probably seem reasonably convincing. After all, most novels that are actually from the 1980s and 1990s usually keep their “80s/90s” elements relatively understated, since these things were just ordinary life back then.

Thirdly, there’s no shortage of research material out there. Nostalgia about these decades is fairly popular at the moment, so there’s loads of information about them on the internet. Likewise, things like films from these decades can usually be found fairly easily on DVD too.

3) Comments: Simply put, one of the best ways to comment about the benefits and flaws of the modern world is to tell a story set in the past. Since your readers will be reading it in the present day (and know that you were writing it in the present day), then they are going to compare the historical “world” of your story to the world around them.

And, you can use this to comment about the modern world. For example, showing some of the problems of the 1980s/90s that are less of an issue these days can be a way of making the reader feel better about the modern world. On the other hand, showing some of the awesome parts of the 1980s/90s that we’re in danger of losing these days can be a way of criticising the modern world. Likewise, showing things that haven’t changed at all can also be a way of commenting about the present day too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Small Recaps Are Useful For Your Readers! Use Them! – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk quickly about recaps today. Although the most common places to find recaps in novels are in sequels, where they allow fans of the series to refresh their memory and allow new readers to jump into the story without having read the previous books, I thought that I’d focus on another type of recap today. I am, of course, talking about small recaps.

These are where you subtly remind your reader of earlier parts or plot elements of the same novel. Although these types of recaps can be a little bit annoying to readers who like to binge-read and/or take detailed notes, they are there for a very good reason and you should include them in your story.

In short, some readers will read a novel in short bursts of a few pages or chapters at a time. It might even take them several weeks to read a novel. So, expecting them to remember important plot details from much earlier in the story can be a little bit unrealistic. At best, it will break your reader’s immersion whilst they try to remember an earlier part of the story and, at worst, it will leave them completely confused.

So, short, quick descriptive reminders of important parts of the story can help your readers to keep following the story. You don’t have to go overboard with these and, when done well, they can be barely noticeable. But, they are useful nonetheless.

To give you an example, here’s a random story fragment that I just made up: “Thomas fumbled through his pockets for the old coin. The scratches from the skeleton’s fingers still gleamed in the flickering candlelight. Haunted treasure, he chuckled to himself, people really will believe anything.”

This fragment contains a couple of small recaps to a non-existent earlier part of the story. From this little fragment, you can easily guess what kind of character Thomas is (eg: a sceptical thief/treasure hunter) and how he obtained the old coin that he is looking at (eg: he prised it from the fingers of a skeleton).

This little story fragment quickly recaps part of a (non-existent) earlier story within the space of three sentences. So, story recaps don’t have to be long or ultra-detailed. They should subtly give the reader just enough information to remind them of something that they might have read a couple of days or weeks ago.

A good test for adding small recaps to your story is to look at a random chapter opening or pivotal scene from your story and ask yourself “If I hadn’t read anything before this, would this still make sense?

Again, remember that whilst you might be an expert on your story, your readers might be reading it over the space of several weeks. They probably won’t be taking notes. So, if something is important or relevant to the plot, don’t be afraid to add a quick reminder of it whenever the reader needs to know this information.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Top Ten Articles – July 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month and this means that it’s time for me to do my usual thing of collecting a list of links to the ten best articles about writing, art, books etc.. that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll also include a couple of honourable mentions too.

This month’s articles turned out fairly well, although there were more articles about writing than about making art (this seems to be something of a trend over the past few months). Plus, this month also saw a comic-format article (linked at the top of the list later in this article) too – seriously, it has been years since I last made one of these 🙂

Likewise, I also ended up reviewing fourteen books this month and, to my delight, also read more sci-fi novels than usual too 🙂

My favourite books from this month’s reviews are probably: “Nova Swing” by M. John Harrison, “The Accidental Time Machine” by Joe Haldeman, “Ghost Dance” by Rebecca Levine, “Blood Music” by Greg Bear, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” By Jodi Taylor and “The Ice Queen” by Alice Hoffman.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – July 2019:

– ” ‘Books – A Comic’ By C. A. Brown” (Comic)
– “Three Reasons Why Authors Write Books That Are ‘Difficult To Read’
– “Three Things To Do When You Worry That Your Short Story Is ‘Badly Written’
– “Good Stories Always Have ‘Deleted Scenes’ – A Ramble
– “Three Basic Tips For Making Your Thriller Story More Gripping
– “Three Thoughts About How To Use Multiple Story Threads
– “How To Use Misdirection In The Horror Genre – A Ramble
– “Three More Tips About When To Abandon A Short Story Project
– “One Clever Way To Make Minimalist Art Interesting (With An Example)
– “Three Tips For Writing Bleak Fiction (That People Will Actually Want To Read)

Honourable Mentions:

– “Three Beginners’ Tips For Writing Heavy Metal-Themed Stories
– “Awesome Art Can Lurk In Unlikely Places – A Ramble