Why Good Horror Novels Include Comedy

Well, although I’ve talked about the topic of comedy in horror fiction before, I thought that I’d return to it today after I started reading a horror novel from the late 1950s called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (mild SPOILERS ahoy).

Although the novel starts in a fairly sombre, ominous and morose way, and I’d worried that reading it was going to be an extremely miserable experience, there is a surprising amount of comedy in the first half of the novel. Most of this consists of amusingly irreverent dialogue, quirky characters, dark comedy and even some hilariously obscure literary humour (eg: a reference to how Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is, as I can personally remember from my university days, dull enough to quite literally send the reader to sleep).

Yet, this comedy compliments the novel’s horror elements really well. It slightly tempers the ominous bleakness of the story, whilst also coming across as a disturbing sign that the characters are trying to protect their sanity when faced with the prospect of living in a creepy old house. After the unsettling early parts of the novel, the first moments of humour are brilliantly unexpected and can really catch you off-guard. Not only that, all of the humour seems to be a natural product of the characters and the setting, which allows it to fit in with the rest of the story really well.

But, why is it there in the first place? Why do horror novels often include moments of comedy? After all, the two genres are supposed to be complete opposites.

Well, there are quite a few reasons for this (that I’ve mentioned in previous articles), including how both genres rely on similar techniques, how it adds personality to the story, how the contrast between horror and comedy heightens the impact of both things, how it shows the reader that the author is a fan of the horror genre (to the point where they can joke about it) and because “100% horror 100% of the time” makes the reader feel jaded and less easy to scare.

But, the most important reason is probably to do with the emotional tone of the story. In short, adding a bit of comedy to your horror story tells your reader that they can’t be certain of what to expect. After all, horror stories are traditionally grim, sombre and bleak things that are filled with misery, death and other such things. So, including a bit of comedy tells your reader “Nope. This isn’t one of those stories.” It tells them that this is a different type of horror story.

Although this probably worked better in older horror novels (I mean, I was genuinely surprised that a horror novel from the 1950s could be funny), it is still effective in modern horror novels. If anything, it’s practically a requirement these days. After all, what better way is there to tell a reader that a new horror novel will give them something different from the old ones?

Of course, to do this properly, the comedy in a horror novel has to feel like a natural part of the story. This is easier to do than you might think. In short, if your story has vaguely interesting characters and/or a slightly strange premise, then this can be used for comedy as effectively as it can be used for horror.

A good modern example of this is probably Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, where the fact that some of the main characters are 1970s punks means that there is plenty of room for irreverent, crude and/or gross humour that is a really good “fit” with the rest of the story.

Another good modern example is S. L. Grey’s excellent 2011 novel “The Mall“. Although this novel can best be described as what a mixture of “Saw” and “Silent Hill” would look like if it was set in a South African shopping centre and directed by David Lynch, some of the bizarre moments that make this story so unsettling are also used as a vehicle for some utterly brilliant social satire and/or weird humour. Because the humour emerges from things that, when seen another way, would be incredibly disturbing, it is a really good fit with the story.

So, although humour in a horror story needs to feel like it has emerged organically from the characters, story and/or settings, it is an essential ingredient in good horror fiction for the simple reason that it tells the reader that they can’t be entirely certain of what to expect if they keep reading. And, of course, unpredictability is one of the most important parts of effective horror.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Contrast To Improve Your Story

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about the value of contrast in fiction. This was something I was reminded of by a computer game, of all things. Although I still don’t seem to be able to get past one of the earlier parts of it, I’ve been playing a modern survival horror game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) again. One of the reasons why this game is so scary is because the player is constantly torn between pressing forward and exploring the creepy mansion and hiding from the scary residents of said mansion.

In other words, it is a really interesting use of contrast. But, this was far from the only interesting use of contrast I’ve seen recently. When I started reading “Origin” by Dan Brown recently, I was surprised at how formal and descriptive the narration in this thriller novel can be at times. Yet, when contrasted with the novel’s suspenseful plot, these more formal moments create an atmosphere that is both compellingly thrilling and yet strangely relaxing at the same time. It’s kind of difficult to describe fully, but it’s a really interesting effect.

Of course, these are far from the only ways that contrast can be used to have a dramatic effect on the audience. A classic example of effective contrast can be found in 1980s British splatterpunk horror fiction (by authors like Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker) where grotesque moments will often be described in the kind of “beautiful” ultra-detailed way that a writer might traditionally use when describing a sculpture, garden etc… This contrast between beauty and horror really adds a lot of extra impact to these scenes.

The best types of contrast are usually between the subject matter and the style that it is presented. Not only does this create a tension between familiarity and unfamiliarity that creates an effect that Sigmund Freud described as “The Uncanny“, but it also creates unexpected conflicting emotions in the audience too.

Although comedy and horror are the two genres where this sort of thing is the most effective, it can be used in other genres too. For example, the TV show “Firefly” is a sci-fi series that is heavily influenced by the western genre. This gives it a really fascinating tension between old and new that lends the show a surprisingly timeless and quirky atmosphere.

Of course, there are other types of contrast that you can use too. For example, having an unlikely type of protagonist in a familiar type of story or writing something that simultaneously attracts and repulses the audience.

A good example of the latter is probably a modern horror novel by Nick Cutter called “The Deep” which is filled with the kind of disturbing psychological horror that will probably make you too scared to read more, but you’ll probably keep reading because you want to know what will happen and more importantly why.

A more subtle example of this technique can be found in a 1980s horror novel called “The Hunger” by Whitley Strieber. In addition to presenting vampires in a way that is closer to modern crime/serial killer stories than the gothic tales of old, the novel also focuses heavily on the main vampire’s tragic backstory. This makes the reader feel sympathy towards her, whilst also being repulsed at her cruelty and general villainy. It’s a surprisingly effective narrative technique.

Another reason why contrast is such an effective thing in fiction is because it stands out from the crowd. Not only are good uses of contrast extremely memorable, but they also tap into the basis for pretty much every form of creativity out there – namely “what if I mix these two things?“. Given that originality comes from having an unexpected mixture of influences, contrast subtly reminds the audience of this fact and results in things that can easily become “cult classics”.

For example, the classic sci-fi movie “Blade Runner” is such an influential masterpiece because it contrasts 1930s-50s style “film noir” with futuristic neon-drenched sci-fi. Likewise, the early 2000s computer game “American McGee’s Alice” is such a cult classic because of the way it contrasts the whimsical innocence of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” with something much darker and more gothic.

So, contrast can be used to create new emotions in the reader and to make your story seem more original. Although learning how to do this well is something that you’ll probably only pick up through research and experimentation, it is something that is well worth looking into because – when done well – it can really improve your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Are Thriller Novels So Long?

Well, since I seem to be going through a phase of reading thriller novels, I thought that I’d look at one thing that these novels seem to have in common – their length. Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” is 524 pages long, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Sinner” is 416 pages long and the novel I’m currently reading, “Origin” by Dan Brown, is 538 pages in length.

Long thriller novels are hardly a new thing, with – for example – Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy novels from the 1970s-90s often being fairly weighty tomes. But, if you go back to the precursors to the modern thriller genre – early 20th century British adventure novels like John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps“, Sapper’s “Bulldog Drummond” etc… and hardboiled US crime novels by authors like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, brevity seemed to be the order of the day.

So, why are thriller novels so long? Well, I’ve got a few theories.

The first is the idea of “value for money”, that a larger book means that the reader gets more “bang for their buck”. And, although longer thriller novels often focus on quality as well as quantity, there seems to be more of an emphasis on quantity these days. In the past, this was probably because of how these novels were seen as “airport novels” – long stories intended to pass long journeys. These days, of course, they also have to compete with both physical and digital TV boxsets.

You can even see this trend in cinemas with, for example, films that would have been lean and efficient 90 minute things in the 1980s/90s often bloating to two hours or more these days. If even something like a superhero movie can regularly pass the two-hour mark these days, then it shows that length is popular.

Secondly, thriller novels might be slightly longer in order to compensate for their pacing. Modern thriller novels are usually written in the kind of fast-paced, ultra gripping way that allows the reader to blaze through the story at the kind of speed that other genres can only dream of. Because the reader will be reading more quickly, the book will seem shorter than it actually is. And, since we live in an age where “short” seems to equal “bad”, this is a way of making sure that the reader has what they consider to be a “full-length” experience, even though a 400-500 page modern thriller might only take them as long to read as a 200-350 page novel in another genre.

Thirdly, longer thriller novels allow for more complex plots, multiple plot threads and other features of the modern thriller genre. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Sinner” contains at least two or three sub-plots in addition to the main plot – which itself consists of the detective solving more than one murder case. Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” starts with two plot threads and also includes an intricately-orchestrated series of plot twists too.

In addition to making thriller stories more gripping, all of these more modern techniques are also useful in making a thriller novel stand out from the crowd. After all, there are only so many variations on “the main character saves the world” or ” the detective solves a crime” that writers can use. So, thriller novels need to make these familiar old tropes interesting – and this is usually done through things like more complex plots, multiple story threads etc… which all add length to the story when compared to the more streamlined stories of older thrillers, adventure novels etc…

Fourthly, changes in publishing probably have something to do with it too. One of the reasons why older novels were often shorter was because it was apparently difficult or expensive to print longer novels back then. Add to this the fact that novels were sometimes printed in magazines and/or had to contend with things like WW2-era paper rationing and shorter novels tended to be preferable in the past.

Of course, with modern printing techniques, it is a lot easier for long novels to be printed cheaply. Likewise, the popularisation of e-books over the past decade or two has meant that length has become less of an issue for publishers. E-books don’t take up expensive shelf space in shops and they also avoid the “oh god, I’ll never finish that!” reaction that people can often get when seeing a particularly hefty novel in a bookshop.

Finally, following on from this, attitudes towards typesetting have changed. In other words, font sizes are often larger these days – so there are fewer words on each page. Back when I was a teenager, I remember finding and reading an old second-hand 1970s edition of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”. It seemed like a substantial, but not ultra-long, novel that was maybe three centimetres thick. Then, sometime later, I happened to see a more “modern” early-mid 2000s reprint of it. This book, telling exactly the same story as the one I’d read, was at least a couple of centimetres thicker due to the print not being the kind of microscopic 10-point font used in the 1970s edition.

Add to this the fact that thriller novels are often first published in hardback, which often has a lower page count due to the larger pages, and it’s easy to see why the average modern paperback thriller novel tends to be a little bit on the bulky side of things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How Scale Progression Makes Thriller Stories Gripping

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one interesting technique in the thriller genre that might be overlooked by people who are new to the genre. I am, of course, talking about scale progression. This is where the size of the crisis, drama etc… increases throughout the story.

This was something I ended up thinking about whilst reading Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” (mild-moderate SPOILERS ahoy!) the night before writing this article. One of the interesting things about this novel is that at least the first third of it seems a little understated. Out of the two plot threads at the start of the novel, one is a police procedural detective story and the other involves a character being stuck in a car with three people that he doesn’t quite trust.

These aren’t action-movie style scenes filled with explosions and derring-do. They’re small-scale scenes that focus heavily on intriguing mystery and tense, claustrophobic suspense. Of course, as the novel progresses a little bit, the scale of the drama starts to increase gradually and things start to get a bit more action-packed and dramatic. And this gradual change meant that, every time I sat down to read some of it, I ended up reading twice as many pages as I’d planned to read.

So, yes, scale progression can be a way to make your thriller story a lot more gripping. There are two contradictory reasons for this. One is that it provides variation for your readers. It’s a bit like how, if a horror novel only contains one type of horror, then the reader will get used to it and it’ll become less scary. By including a mixture of small-scale drama, large-scale drama, suspense, mystery and action, you’ll be able to keep your reader interested. If they can’t predict what is coming next, then they’re going to want to keep reading.

The other reason is that, by progressing from small to large scale drama, you give the reader the sense that the story is becoming more and more dramatic. That, if they read “just a few more pages“, they’ll be rewarded with something even more gripping, dramatic, intriguing and/or suspenseful than what they’ve just read. Of course, once they’ve done this, then they’ll want to read “just another few pages” because they know that it will be worth their while to do so.

In other words, scale progression makes your thriller story both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. When done well, this provides all of the reassuring familiary of a predictable story and all of the edge-of-your seat intrigue of an unpredictable story. But, there is one important thing that you must remember if you are going to do this.

Using this technique means that you have to pay a lot more attention to the beginning of your story. If you have to start small and work upwards, then writing a beginning that subtly tells the reader “if you keep reading, then you won’t regret it” is even more important than ever. After all, if your reader is expecting a thriller story, then they might be a little bit puzzled or surprised when the opening chapters aren’t as epic, spectacular and/or action-packed as they might expect.

So, you need to use all of the techniques of the thriller genre in subtle, precise ways. Going back to Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man”, the very first chapter is split up into two short 1- 4 page segments that each focus on a different plot thread. This is like a distilled version of the “alternating chapters” technique used in many thriller novels. Even though the drama is fairly small-scale, the fact that an intense version of this technique is used in the first chapter tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

Likewise, the narrative voice is the kind of fast-paced, matter-of-fact one that readers associate with thriller novels. Even though relatively little has happened, this writing style tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

Then, there’s the fact that lots of intriguing mysteries and details (eg: an incomplete account of what could be a murder, a description of a scary-looking hitchhiker with a broken nose, a car stopping for said hitchhiker etc..) are thrown at the reader without a full explanation – giving the hint that they’ll need to read more in order to find out more. Needless to say, this also tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

So, yes, although a careful progression from small-scale to large-scale drama can be one of the best ways to make your thriller story gripping, you need to pay extra attention to the beginning of your story. If the small-scale parts aren’t intriguing, suspenseful or compelling enough then your reader isn’t going to hang around for the more spectacular stuff later in the story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Top Ten Articles – November 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month, so I thought that I’d do my usual thing of collecting a list of links to the ten best articles (with maybe an honourable mention or two) about writing, reading etc… that I’ve posted here this month.

All in all, this month has been a bit of a strange one and although I quite like most of the articles I wrote, some of them also ended up going in very slightly more of a game-based direction since I got a modern refurbished computer at the time of writing many of them. On the plus side, this also led to non-“Doom II” related game reviews (eg: this one and this one) returning to this site for the first time in about six months or so.

Talking of reviews, I also managed to review twelve novels this month – with my favourites being “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” By Phillip K. Dick, “Virtual Light” by William Gibson, “N or M?” by Agatha Christie, “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” by K.W.Jeter, “Seventh Heaven” by Alice Hoffman and “Breeding Ground” by Shaun Hutson.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – November 2019:

– “Does Writing Style Matter More Than Plot?
– “Three Things To Do When You Can’t Use Your Favourite Writing Style
– “Imperfect Technology Is An Important Part Of The Cyberpunk Genre – A Ramble
– “Two Very Basic Tips For Reading A ‘Difficult’ Book
– “Four Reasons Why Spin-Off Novels Are So Awesome
– “When To Use Alternating Chapters In Your Story
– “Two Tips For Writing Stories That Can Compete With The Internet, Games, Phones etc…
– “Why Writers Need To Read Multiple Genres Of Fiction
– “Three Ways To Make Your Story More Readable
– “What Can A Computer Game Teach Us About Writing Horror Fiction That Focuses On One Type Of Horror?

Honourable mentions:

– “Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking
– “Is Simplification A Good Thing In Storytelling? – A Ramble

Three Things To Do When You Can’t Use Your Favourite Writing Style

As long-time readers of this site probably know, I’ve been dabbling with longer writing projects over the past year or so. Well, after an attempt at writing a sci-fi horror thriller novel failed at about 21,000 words into the story, I tried to work out what had gone wrong. What had turned this fascinating project into the kind of dreary, unrewarding chore that I’d use literally any excuse to avoid writing more of it.

Surprisingly, the main thing turned out to be the writing style. Since I enjoy reading fast-paced novels, I’d tried to write one in this style – only to find that it was lacking atmosphere, had some fairly bland sentences and generally didn’t have the level of personality that I’d hoped.

So, I thought that I’d look at a few things that you can do if you find that you can’t use your favourite writing style.

1) Work out why: This sounds obvious, but it’s worth repeating. If several attempts at writing a novel in a writing style that you really love have failed, then you need to ask yourself why. To get the most out of doing this, you need to have enough experience with reading and thinking about books to be able to take a step back and look at your own failed fiction in the way that a critic would.

Once you’ve worked out what went wrong, then it is a lot easier to work out what to do next. Maybe you just need to practice more? Maybe you need to pay more attention to things like descriptions, characters, settings etc..? Maybe you need to plan your story more or less?

If you are having trouble with using a writing style that you really love, then you can’t really do anything about it until you know why it is a problem. So, read lots of books and look at book reviews too. Get into the mindset of a critic and then take a merciless look at your failed writing, comparing it to the books that you really enjoy and working out what the reviews would say. This might sound harsh or discouraging, but it’ll give you tons of info that will help to improve your next writing project.

2) Find your own style: Usually, if you’re having problems with a writing style, then this is because you want to be another author. You’ve read some really gripping, awe-inspiring fiction by someone else and you think “I want to write something like that!“. And there is nothing wrong with this. It is how writers learn and, often, how we get interested in writing in the first place. It is a totally natural part of being a writer.

However, as any piece of writing advice will tell you, trying to be another author will result in lacklustre second-rate fiction. But, why? Well, it’s all to do with how writers develop. Simply put, the best writers – the ones that inspire you to write – will often try to be a mixture of several other authors. As paradoxical as it sounds, the more writers that influence you, the more original, fresh and alive your writing will be.

It’s a bit like a palette. If you’ve only got one colour of paint then, no matter how good your painting might be, it’ll still seem a bit limited. If you’ve got lots of different paints, then you can mix all sorts of interesting colours and create a much more dramatic-looking painting.

And, this is how you find your own unique writing style. You read a lot and take influence from as many amazing authors as you can. Yes, your style might take a while to develop and it might look a bit different to what you might expect, but it’ll result in better fiction than just trying to be one other author.

3) Know yourself: Another good thing about reading lots of different authors is that you get to know what you do and don’t like in stories. And, if you’re willing to do a bit of introspection, then you might find that it is different to what you think that you like.

For example, I mentioned earlier that I enjoy reading fast-paced novels. And I do. However, the reasons for this are different to the reasons I enjoy writing. When I read fast-paced stories, I love the fact that I can just relax with them, that I can blaze through an entire book in a relatively short time and that they have the kind of ultra-dramatic focused plots that don’t take too much effort to follow. They are just fun to read.

Yet, the books that really inspire me, the ones that feel like more than “just a novel”, often tend to be a bit more slow-paced, descriptive, thoughtful, atmospheric, quirky etc… They are books that do things that only books can do, and aren’t just films on the printed page. Yes, these books take more effort to read and I don’t always feel the enthusiasm for this, but they usually tend to linger in my imagination and make me want to write something that will have the same effect on other people.

So, if you are having problems with your writing style, then it is well worth taking a deeper look at yourself. Chances are, you’re confusing what you enjoy reading with what really inspires you to write and/or what you are best at writing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Is Simplification A Good Thing In Storytelling? – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Anyway, one of the games I got after upgrading to a vaguely modern refurbished computer a couple of weeks before preparing this article was the 2013 remake of a 1990s first-person shooter game called “Shadow Warrior”. Although I don’t know when or if I’ll review the remake, one of the many differences between it and the original game is the highly simplified level design.

In short, the levels are fairly linear things where there is one “correct” path through a sequence of arena-like rooms. Even the game’s “secret areas” are often almost in plain sight when compared to the carefully-hidden item caches in the large, complex levels of the original game. Yet, I’m still having a lot of fun with the remake since the game has been designed around this loss. In other words, the remake is more of a “Serious Sam” style game where the emphasis is on thrilling fast-paced combat against hordes of enemies rather than on exploration, puzzle-solving and combat.

But, what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?

Well, since I got back into reading regularly about a year earlier, I’ve also noticed a very slight trend towards simplification in modern fiction. Of course, this doesn’t affect every modern book, but it’s noticeable when you do something like comparing a thriller novel from the 1970s to a more modern one. Whether it is a slightly less descriptive or less formal writing style, shorter chapters, shorter sentences and, in some cases, explicitly spelling out things that older novels expected the reader to work out on their own via observation and thought, modern novels are more likely to be less complex than older ones.

So, is this a bad thing? In some ways yes, in other ways no.

Simplification has happened for a number of good practical reasons. For starters, novels now have to compete with games, phones, boxsets, the internet etc… for people’s attention. So, a slightly more “matter of fact” writing style that can be read easily, moves along at a good pace and keeps the reader gripped is a way for writers to hold their own against the competition. It’s a way to make books a bit more readable in these hurried, overloaded times. And, given that the whole point of reading novels is to spend time in an enjoyable and interesting way, it’s good that books have become more optimised for this.

Secondly, everything is relative. Although older novels might seem more complex, they were probably just considered “ordinary” by the standards of the time they were written. For example, a typical 1970s novel might seem a bit more formal and complex than a typical “ordinary” modern one. But, in the 1970s, the 1970s novel would have probably been considered “simplified” when compared to one from the 19th century.

In other words, simplicity and complexity are relative to the time that a novel is written. With the exception of some literary authors, writers don’t usually set out to write novels that require an academic degree, an ultra-large vocabulary and/or lots of time and note-taking to read. Novels are meant to be something that the average person can pick up and enjoy. So, they will be optimised for whatever is considered to be this at the time.

Thirdly, it makes books more fun whilst keeping most of the good stuff. Although reading a more complex or formal novel can be a really satisfying experience (in the way that playing a challenging computer game from the 1990s can be), there’s something to be said for a book that is just effortless fun to read. Not only that, “simplified” modern books will often keep a lot of the essential elements of a good novel (eg: atmosphere, descriptions, characterisation etc..), but spread them through the novel more evenly or get them across to the reader in ways that don’t slow down the pace of the story. So, “simpler” modern novels can often be a lot more fun to read.

On the downside, this simplification does have some problems. For starters, it makes it slightly harder for writers to use a really distinctive narrative voice. Likewise, unless it is done very well, the story will seem very slightly less atmospheric and immersive. The reader also doesn’t get the sense of achievement that might come from finishing a more complex book.

In addition to this, it also slightly limits what stories can do. Since film and television have had such an influence on more modern fiction (eg: the “show, don’t tell” rule etc..), many modern novels are less likely to do the kinds of interesting things that only novels can do.

Whether it is using language in clever ways, spending significant time focusing on a character’s thoughts/emotions, using more unusual narrative styles, clever literary experiments or even just creating a really vivid sense of place through sustained passages of description, books can do a lot of cool and unique things when they don’t have to worry about being similar to film or TV.

So, yes, “simplification” in many modern novels is both an awesome and a terrible thing. But, if there’s one constant with novels, it is change. Books are a response to the time and place that they are written.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂