Category Archives: Believability

Do It Again With Feeling

As an actor those are words you never want to hear because it means you’re not doing your job, you’re not performing the scene with enough emotion to make it feel real to the audience. As a writer we’re susceptible to the same mistake. Except it’s not necessarily our characters that might not feel real. It can just as easily be the conflict itself.

I realize that it may sound strange for a story’s conflict to be the thing that makes it real and interesting. It’s the reason we turn the page. We have to know if Harry Potter defeats the villain of the month! But if the conflict itself is only half of the equation. The other half — the half that makes it feel real and creates the tension — is how the conflict affects the characters internally.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction is just as true in physics as it is in fiction. In a fight scene, when the villain throws a punch at the hero, if the hero doesn’t react, either by dodging or being knocked back by the blow when it connects, it’s not believable. Likewise if the young heartthrob dumps the heroine for no good reason. If the heroine doesn’t run away crying or punches them in the face (my personal favorite) then the whole scene falls flat. Without the reaction it’s like it didn’t happen at all. And the reaction doesn’t have to be physical. I’ll use the same examples again to illustrate what I mean. When the not-so-happy couple breaks up, their emotional reaction is just as important as the physical one that follows. Is the heroine angry? Is she in disbelief? Is her heart broken? Is the heartthrob sad? Are they defensive? Impatient? In shock that they’re about to get punched? It’s the same thing in the fight scene. Is combatant A frightened of their opponent or are they confident that they’ll win?

All of this detail isn’t just to fill out the scene and make it breathe. It also increases the tension in your story. All of that description and reaction takes time and that’s time in a critical moment of the story where your readers are waiting for big punch. All the while you’re bringing them deeper into the character’s mind. That punch isn’t being thrown at a stranger, it’s being thrown at them.

It continually amazes me how adding depth can solve so many problems at once. I almost want to call it the Swiss Army knife of writing. Granted, like any tool it helps having some experience using it. I mean you can’t cut cheese with a corkscrew…though it would be fun to watch someone try. Adding the wrong emotion or reaction will do more damage then good. But avoiding that pitfall is a subject for another day.

The Truth About Dark Fiction

The truth about dark fiction is very simple. It’s all about us.

I’ve always thought of myself, as a science fiction writer, clearly on the side of optimism versus doom and dystopia. As a kid, I was certainly a fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and their themes of human conflict, but I remember watching Star Trek with a different set of eyes. I only really appreciated Star Wars after traveling halfway around the world during high school. Star Trek pulled me in because it portrayed our current terribly flawed and imperfect society at its absolute theoretical pinnacle in the very near future. Even with the latest movies, in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, that future world is a darker place than before, but that relentless optimism is there. If you look across the plethora of recent popular books and movies, there is a very strong lean towards darkness and dystopia. Why is that?

It’s very simple. We see the worst of the world every night when we turn on the news. Even the newscasts that end with that thirty-second “water skiing squirrel-type” video are full of dark, depressing themes. It’s no wonder that it calls to us as writers. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias are easy to imagine because all we have to do is turn the creative knobs to eleven or twelve and our worst fears are easy to explore. The truth of dark fiction is very simple. It’s a reflection of our society, and in some cases, how we view our future selves in the worst way possible. And as writers, it’s pretty damned easy to wrap it around us like a blanket.

Let’s be clear, I’m not disrespecting dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic fiction. Nor am I saying it’s easy to write and build these worlds. I’m discussing something that writers sometimes fail to notice – our own attitudes seep into our writings. When we’re convinced the world is a terrible place, it’s a little easier to write dark fiction. When we’re happy, writing happy subjects is a little easier as well. Our own personal attitudes and emotions often come with us to the keyboard and until we understand it, there’s nothing we can do to mitigate their effects.

How do I mitigate those effects? Music. There are quite a few folks I know who couldn’t imagine listening to music while writing, but it really helps me leave things behind when I sit down to the keyboard. What music? Whatever fits the mood. For my novels, I usually create a playlist while I’m developing the early outline. Sometimes a song really captures the emotional vibe of a scene. Sometimes, I need a song (or three!) to get me into the mood to even look at the book again. Watching the blinking cursor of doom for a little while without music is almost certainly going to send me on a miserable writing time adventure. On those nights (when I do most of my writing), having that go-to playlist helps me put the day behind me and focus on the next 2,000 words I want to write. That focus, and understanding that the way negativity can crawl inside our heads, is critical.

But what about when I want to look into the darkness? Well, because of my own experiences, it’s even easier for me to capture that emotion than listening to music. I’ve blogged on Fictorians before about a life-threatening illness I faced in 2014. As I recovered, my own attitudes were dark and depressed and I wanted desperately to get back to polishing the draft of SLEEPER PROTOCOL, but I couldn’t. Writing just wasn’t a positive experience. Ironically, the two stories I wrote during my recovery were much darker pieces than I’d ever written before. When I need to get dark, remembering that experience and bringing that attitude to my writing is fairly easy. Experience, especially those that are dark and uncomfortable, helps us tap into dark fiction. I’d wager that our happy dreams and goals are equally powerful, but darkness tends to have a greater connection to us because we’ve lived through it or we are living through it at a given time.

But, we have to come up for air. Not everything is wine and roses in the real world, but we can’t let our miserable world drag us down on a daily basis. We have a choice to respond to every emotion, stimulus, and action we face daily. There are times it’s okay to delve into the darkness and craft the story that needs to be written. It’s human nature to explore the abyss, after all. Just don’t sit there staring for too long. The world needs you and your voice up here. Your characters need you. Dark fiction is all about us, but so is optimistic fiction. There’s no balance to it – it’s a continuum. We’re all out there somewhere. If you’re too far down the dark side and feel like you can’t slide back the other direction, please reach out. I’ll be happy to help.

The Difference Between Darkness and Murk

When I was in my sophomore year, we all had to write a short story about whatever we wanted. Now, I’m not sure what I wrote; the assignment didn’t stick in my head because of what did.

No, the assignment stuck in my head because of what my buddy Jacob did.

See, Jacob went for the most gruesome splatter-based horror story he could. It was the sort of story you’d expect from a tenth-grader, badly written and dripping in gore. At one point a series of people got taken out by a snowplow. Amongst all our friends, it was generally agreed that Jacob had produced a work of pure genius, to rival those of Poe himself. He got a C-.

That story was so “awesome” to my tenth-grade self that I kept a copy of it. And while I was in college a couple of years later, I stumbled across it and re-read the stupid thing. I immediately concluded that “C-” had been generous. Grammar errors aside, the story structure had less cohesiveness than an average porn movie. Oh, the bodies were stacked up like cordwood, but that’s all the thing had going for it. That sanguine veneer covered exactly…nothing.

Now, none of this should come as a surprise to any readers here, save perhaps the fact that I’m talking about a writing assignment from High School at all. Of course it sucked-we were in the tenth grade.

But every time I sit down to try to write something dark, I remember that stupid story. I remember how fascinated I was by it, and then how terrible it was. Those two extreme reactions are interesting and paradoxical enough that they form the core of my thinking about writing dark. And they’re the reason I rarely do it.

Dark writing is often used as a way to cover up bad writing. And it should never, ever be.

There’s a lot of posts going on this month about pulpy fun. And that’s fine, so long as that’s the contract between the reader and the writer. Reader goes in expecting pulpy fun, reader gets pulpy fun, all is well in the world. But doing an intentionally pulpy story is one thing; being dark because it’s a substitute for being good is another.

Let’s take this to cinema for a second. You know why nobody liked Man of Steel? Because Grimdark Superman isn’t a thing. Zach Snyder took on the admittedly steep challenge of doing the Big Blue Boy Scout and completely muffed it. Superman’s a tough character to write specifically because you can’t simply go dark to get a serious edge to your story. You have to have a purely morally upright hero. It can be done–and done very, very well–but it pulls that crutch out from underneath you.

Which should only serve to point out that there is a crutch here.

So, writing good dark fiction requires that one be aware of the fact that going dark can be a crutch. Keep it in your head at all times, because every time you add to the body count there should be a purpose to it. Every murder, every horrible monster; you need to look at the thing you’re trying to evoke in your reader. If it’s pulpy, campy fun, then fine; be up front that you’re going to have pulpy, campy fun. But if you want a really good, dark, horrific story then the first thing you have to do is stop thinking of it as a dark story and just think of it as a story.

Your characters still need to be well-rounded. They still have to have real emotions, still have to think and be motivated realistically. If you have a villain–even one whose goal it is to go about gruesomely murdering people, then that villain needs to have reasons for what he or she is doing. Arguably one of the best horror villains written is Hannibal Lecter, and he’s not great because of his victims. He’s great because his murders stand out in stark contrast to his erudite intellectualism. He’s terrifying because we like him.

So, in short; the trick to writing good, dark fiction is to stop thinking of it as dark fiction. Write your characters. Give them a full life, and let the readers love them for who they are. Watching some random, faceless murdered commit atrocities is fun. Watching a character you love commit atrocities is terrifying.

Two Great Genres That Read Great Together

Science Fiction and Horror – Two Great Genres That Read Great Together

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll get this.

Imagine a kid, tousled hair and freckles staring in horror at a book in his hand walking down the aisle of a library. From the other directions another kid, this one a girl with thick dark curls held up in two ponytails, as they peruse the aisles of their local library. They comically run into each other. The first boy recoils. “You got your science fiction in my horror!”

The girl looks equally aghast. “You got your horror in my science fiction!”

As an aspiring writer, I tried to write what I thought was purely science fiction while I wrote my first short stories. I knew that the novels developing in my head were more military science fiction and I was completely comfortable with that subject matter. I wanted to keep my learning curve within the bounds of “traditional” science fiction. In hindsight, I’m very glad for the opportunity to have had my mind changed for me.

In 2012, I joined the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group and became a regular member. While submitting short fiction for critique, analysis, and help, we had a contest to write a flash fiction story combining two dissimilar genres. To this day, I’m glad I did not draw Lovecraftian horror and “chick-lit.” Instead, I drew science fiction…and horror.

Horror was something I never expected to write. I’ve never been a huge fan of horror movies, and I very rarely watch them. Walking Dead? Nope. It’s just not my thing. So, faced with writing a 1,000-word story I panicked and wrote nothing until the weekend before it was due. I was hung up on two things. First, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury’s definition of science fiction – it is the art of the possible. Horror, to me, seemed like the art of the impossible. Granted, I’ve experienced a few crazy, unexplained things in my life, but horror seemed to be all about fear. How could fear and (at least to me) optimistic visions of the future be related?

The second thing standing in my way was failing to understand why we read horror. I am a dedicated Stephen King fan and I realized while I was trying to get past the blinking cursor of doom that I was not connecting the science fiction scenery to the emotional response from the reader. When that finally happened, I wrote the story in one sitting while waiting for a flight at the Salt Lake City airport. I submitted the story “Poultry” for critique and was told I should find a place for it. Eventually, I did find a magazine for it, but without pay. In the last six months, I sold it again to Digital Science Fiction, where it recently appeared in their Quickfic Anthology.

Writing a miniature space opera with a horror element (and admittedly, a dark humor, too) was easier than I thought because I realized I wanted to elicit a response from the audience. I wanted there to be a moment of revulsion and a head-shaking chuckle at the end of the story. I’m hopeful I achieved that because that was the lesson I learned while writing the story.

We tend to think of prose as painting a picture for the reader. That’s part of the equation. We need to visualize the reader’s response. Can we do that for every reader? No. But, if we have that “target” in mind, we can deliver an emotional punch to the reader’s gut. That’s what makes stories memorable.

And, for the record, science fiction and horror are two great genres that work great together. (Insert head-shaking chuckle here)