The Ingredients of Spooky on all NaNo’s Eve

First and foremost, Happy Halloween everyone! I hope it’s a safe and pleasant one. Especially for those of you on the East Coast. My entire family lives there and I know how bad it’s been, my heart goes out to all of you!

When I saw the blogging schedule weeks ago and realized I was lucky enough, as a horror writer, to have my post land on Halloween–well, I squealed. (It was very dignified, I promise.) I had a conversation with my mother not too long ago about Halloween and how it’s changed over the years. She isn’t a fan of the gory decorations like body parts and the like. She doesn’t find it to be ‘scary’ and instead feels it’s just excessive and unnecessary. She prefers the subtle spookiness, cobwebs and dark hallways, old gravestones and eerie sound effects. Two very different types of spooky, but each can be, and often are, effective.

The same goes for writing. A while back I did a post discussing ‘Gore Bags‘ or really, what does gore contribute to your horror works? Let’s take a broader look at the topic. When writing, how do you know whether to go with a bloody scene, bits and pieces flying everywhere or with growing suspense and a thick, creepy atmosphere? What about a blend of the two? There is no right or wrong way to go about it. You have to know your story as well as your audience. While you may have started out wanting to write a splatterpunk serial killer type mystery, how have the characters and setting evolved as the story progressed? Will they still make the same uneducated decisions they did at the beginning of the ordeal that led to mayhem and possible deaths, or have they wised up? If they have, the odds of someone falling into a gory trap decrease. Unless, of course, your antagonist grows with them.

Likewise, if you’re going for a strictly atmospheric spook-factor, these factors still apply. Say your characters have been trapped in a scary mansion, complete with secret passageways and a fog-heavy cemetary. The first few hours, or even days, are bound to be nerve-wracking, but the longer they’re there, will the setting have the same effect, or will the characters have grown desensitized to it? If they have, you may have to dial up the spook factor. Pull out that shambling figure or wailing ghost you’ve been saving.

The list of what frightens people varies drastically. I have a close friend that is terrified of spiders, and while zombies are gross and the gore is unsettling, they don’t frighten the ever-livin’ out of her. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I wouldn’t recommend relying on the ‘tried-and-true’ tactics in this situation. Gore may unsettle many, but it doesn’t necessarily frighten all. A darkened hallway with disconcerting soundeffects will unerve quite a few and bore others. It’s impossible to please everyone. As with many aspects of writing a novel, focus on pleasing yourself and staying true to your characters. Odds are, so long as you have real characters that a reader can identify with, what frightens the HeartyHeroine will frighten the reader.

Finally, while you’re stuffing your faces with obscene amounts of candy corn and chocolately goodness, NaNoWriMo lurks in the shadows. It watches you. It won’t strike just yet, not for a few hours at least, but when it does, it will have all month to watch you writhe in writing agony.

I won’t go too far into the joy, and terror, that is NaNoWriMo, I’ll save that for perhaps tomorrow’s post as well as my own blog. I will say that I am participating in it, and will be using this opportunity to step out of my comfort zone! Which is a frightening concept all on its own. I hope to see you there!

What frightens you in both reality and literature? Do you find gore in literature to be scary or trite? What about atmosphere and suspense? Do you intend to participate in NaNoWriMo? How about candy corn, got any you’d like to share with me?

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Baiting the Hook—A First Step in Crafting Suspense

Wait! Do NOT open that…

Box. Door. Window. Hatch.

We’ve all been there, reading a thriller, horror story. Or sitting in the dark of a movie theater.

We’re not going to jump if, behind the door is Johnny Studboy about to hand Mary Sue a corsage and a box with a ring in it.

But if we know that (fill in the huge evil character) has annihilated Johnny, taken on his appearance, and substituted the ring for another that changed the last poor girl into a…

You get the idea.

Last time, I wrote about how often it’s what we don’t actually show that lets the readers’ imaginations run wild. Hopefully we’ve given enough poisoned breadcrumbs along the path to send their imaginations in a direction we want it to go. We’ve just left them to paint in the details.

In crafting suspense, however, there are tried-and-true methods. I don’t intend to go into them all. Writer’s Digest recently wrote about many, quoting the movie-master, Mr. Hitchcock. He cites the couple sitting at a bistro table chatting. No suspense there. Unless we, the reader/audience have previous been allowed to know what they don’t. Under their table is a bomb, set to go off at 3:00. And, as the gentleman asks the waiter for the check, chatting pleasantly with his soon-to-be paramour, he checks his watch. It’s 2:55.

Bait the hook and reel ’em in. But first, bait the hook.

All kinds of speculative fiction, more often than not, depends on suspense to propel the reader. In fact, I’d say that, to some extent, every kind of fiction does. Even literary. But that’s another discussion.

Rachelle Gardner blogged about writing what you know, that it doesn’t mean sticking to what you’ve actually, physically experienced in your life, but writing from what, in the depths of your being, you know to be true, for you. Go deep. Write from your truth.

In the case of suspense, I’d posit that writing what you know should draw from the well of your experience. What has worked in making you both terrified to keep reading/watching, and unable to stop?

Here’s where you do show. Bait the hook. If we don’t know what Ms. Unholy Evil is capable of, we won’t worry when Johnny stops to give her a light. If we don’t know, from having seen what the thing in the box can do, or unleash, we won’t cringe as it’s about to be opened.

After a brief introduction, when a boy chasing his paper boat down the rain-filled gutter encounters a clown in the sewer, and Uncle Stevie is kind enough to show us what a fun-filled clown can do, well, need I go on? But I’ll be you did.

First you gotta set ’em up. Bait that hook. Show something mind-blowing. (To a degree appropriate to your story and genre, of course.) Then back off. Take your sweet time. But keep going toward that door. Or that lovely lunch date with the bomb under the table.

You know what works. The slow amble up to an “Oh, no, don’t do it” moment, and then cut. Make us wait to see if…

Think about it. What’s scarier? The actual moment when something flies down from the top of the bookcase (of course it’s only the cat—the monster is behind the curtain), or those interminable moments when Sally Stupid is creeping in the dark to investigate? You KNOW something is going to happen.

More importantly, you’ve shown just how horrific, or life-changing (or life-ending), it might be.

Then build those moments, accelerating to the big showdown or the big reveal. Each more intense, each reversal more devasting, terrifying, or challenging.

But you know all that. Right? Timing, pace, is everything.

But first, you gotta bait the hook.

What ways do you think are effective in doing that? Do you agree that it’s key? Are there times when effective baiting is not necessary?

Gorebags! The New SpecFic Party Favor!

Wait…what?

For the less video game savvy of our readers, there is a game called Fallout 3.  In this game are bad guys called super mutants and raiders.  Whenever you take down one of their encampments you are likely to find sacks of gore strewn about their ramshackle place of residence.  That’s right, gore.  Just sitting there.  For the easily befuddled, it’s even called a ‘gorebag’.  As a player you can choose to stick your hand in that gore and see if there’s anything worthwhile inside, like ammo or bottle caps (in-game currency) or maybe some drugs like stimpaks (health), y’know, typical end-of-world paraphernalia.

Sometimes it’s worth the effort, sometimes it really isn’t.  Add to the ick-factor the game makes this horrible ‘squick’ sound when you look into the bag.

Why would anyone ever want to stick there hand in there?  I don’t know, why does a lot of SpecFic literature these days, especially in the fantasy genre, seem to be constantly trying to out-gross the last hard-hitter?

Don’t get me wrong, I write dark fantasy, I’ve put my characters through quite a bit, quite a graphic bit, so I’m certainly not against horror or gore in our fantasy works, I’m only asking you to ask yourself if it serves a purpose.  Does it, in some way, advance the plot?  Do we discover more about the characters’ weaknesses?  Their strengths?  Is it more than BadGuy kicking puppies and killing messengers to prove how ‘bad’ he really is?

Let’s use Brent Weeks’ Way of Shadows as an example, because it’s awesome and I love it.  It’s pretty horrific in those beginning chapters, and not just in a flat out blood-splatter kind of way either.  I’m talking abuse, rape and poverty all dealing with children between the ages of 8 and 14.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  But it’s more than just a desire to say ‘Well, these are the slums and stuff is bad.  See, look!’  We’re shown just how evil the BadGuy characters are and how much our Hero has to endure so that when the BadGuy makes his dramatic re-appearance years later, we’re just as terrified as our Hero.  We know what BadGuy is capable of, we’ve seen it.  We know what our Hero endured, we were there with him when the blows landed and the tears fell.  It’s real to us.  That is a gorebag with ammo and a stimpak inside.

Here’s something else to consider: there’s more to horror than blood and guts or raping and pillaging.  There are episodes of The Twilight Zone that still scare the crap out of me using black & white TV, Rod Serling’s voice and some damn good characterization.  What about the horror of a situation?  Overcoming fears?  The power of suggestion is amazing so let your readers put their imagination to work.  Have you ever been in a situation where you had to confront someone or something?  You knew it was coming, but you spend the hours leading up to it dreading all the ways it can go wrong?  How often was your imagination, fueled by your irrational fears, more terrifying than what did come to pass?

I’m noticing what could be called a trend in some of the SpecFic works out there where it seems as though everyone is trying to one-up the last guy.  Characters, significant or otherwise, are killed for shock value.  How many books lately have opened with someone either dead, dying or in the process of being killed?  It’s not a bad thing, my own current WIP opens with a bar fight, but I think there needs to be more balance.  I think it’s a fine line and some writers are crossing it in an attempt to be more shocking, more bloody, more everything than the last guy, while their plot and characters sit forgotten on the curb.

Like anything else in your story, your horror aspects must be integral.  They must serve a purpose.  In my opening scene, I need you to see just how far my MC is willing to go to get what she wants, because the shit hits the fan pretty quick and we need to see what kind of girl we’re working with.  Do I succeed?  Not sure, guess I’ll find out.  What I do know is that if I removed that scene and started the book from the next one, no one would have any reason to believe this girl could hold her own.  It has a purpose.

What about you?  Do you include aspects of horror or the disturbing in your SpecFic?  How do you feel about books that do?  Is it purposeful or trend-ful?  Would a zombie fat unicorn scare you?  ‘Cause it would me.

The M.I.C.E. quotient…ummm…what?

The M.I.C.E. quotient…ummm…what?

By Dawn G. Sparrow

There are many ways to tell a story. There may even be many ways to tell a good story. However, when you break down a great story, you find it is some variation of the M.I.C.E. quotient.

Well, okay, then, what is it?

 Orson Scott Card created this useful way of dissecting a story.

I’m a horror writer, which, if you know me, makes no sense whatsoever. I am outgoing and fun, with bouts of sadness, yet horror and Dawn don’t seem to match up very well. The point of this tangent is to let you know, that I will be skewing the formula toward horror. I may not men it to, but it is who I am.

Anyway, back to the show!

Let’s start by breaking down what M.I.C.E. means.

M- Milieu – simply the world surrounding the characters, every part of the environment of the characters has a place here.

I- Idea – information that the reader is meant to learn or discover during the story.

C- Character – the nature of one or more of the people in the story, which generally arises from or leads to a conclusion on human nature.

E- Events – the events of the story are everything that happens and why.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Well, each story contains different proportions of these four things.

In a MILIEU story, the story is about the setting and someone who moves through it. These are the Gulliver’s Travels and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court stories. The thing of supreme importance is the setting, pure and simple. Time travel and space travel stories often fall more heavily in this group.

In an IDEA story, a question or problem is posed at the beginning of the work and answered at the end. Different levels of characterization are needed depending on the specific genre and book. Most murder mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Ross MacDonald fall into this category. Caper stories in particular need less characterization and are all about the idea.

In a CHARACTER story (my kind of story), the person attempts to change or is changed, usually by external forces forcing a re-evaluation of life. The protagonist MUST be changed in some way from the beginning of the story to the end.

As I said, this is my type of story so forgive me if I expound a little bit. The best thrillers and suspense novels are the ones where you fear for the protagonist and watch them change through the story. Horror simply can’t work without this. Some may try to argue that Lovecraft is not horror by this definition. Fine. Argue that. Look more closely and you will see that although the milieu is important, almost its own character in some stories, the descent into madness of the protagonist is the real focus. (Remember the protagonist may not be the narrator, and madness can also encompass the ‘strange disappearances’.) Take The Mist by Stephen King, the novella, NOT the movie which totally changed the ending and made it much less of a horror story. The story appears to be straightforward. A mist comes in and traps people in a supermarket after a big storm. The environment forms the story, right? No. The real story is about the interactions of the people in the market, not their encounters with the strange monsters in the mist. Look at other horror stories and think about why the scare you, or at least work as horror. You see? Character is the very essence of good horror.

Okay, enough of my celebration of horror, I will do more posts on that later, rest assured.

In an EVENT story, something happens and causes something else to happen. The world is thrown out of balance and the people in the story try to fix it. It ends when they succeed or fail. Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo are great examples of this.

I think you can see how different stories use these four elements in different amounts to create a story of whole cloth. So, pick your story, try to figure out which one your story leans the most toward, and then decide if that is what you really want it to do.

I am indebted to Orson Scott Card’s writing books How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint. Some of the examples used above come directly from those books, while others are my own.

Good writing!

Dawn

Welcome To The Jungle

Hi All!

SpecFic here; as if you didn’t already know. Welcome to the Speculative Fiction Group Blog. As the sub-title above says; we are a dedicated group of writer who work in the various genres of Speculative Fiction.

Since this genre is about as diverse in sub-genres as a U.N. summit meeting, we felt that no one author could possibly cover its range, or flavor. Therefore, we hope to bring you a wide variety of view points, articles, reviews, and possibly an online serial or two, from a diverse set of talented authors who eat, breathe, and sleep SF.

So, if your into Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Paranormal Romance, Steampunk, or any of the Speculative Fiction being written today; we’re hoping this will be the place to get your groove on.

Thanks for stopping by, and let the show begin.

SpecFic