Category Archives: Suspension of Disbelief

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.

Taking the Brimstone and Blood Out of Horror

When it comes to writing horror a lot of readers and authors assume that the actual horror has to come from something otherworldly — vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Otherworldly horror is cool but for some readers and authors it’s not something they enjoy. Personally, the second a demon appears in a scene I’m out. So it’s a good thing that horror is a lot more broad and versitile then that.

While the otherworldly is terrifying, the everyday is just as scary. In my opinion the otherworldly is scary because it’s the unknown. It’s unknown why they exist, why they want to harm or kill someone, and how powerful they will become if they aren’t stopped. It’ s human nature to fear the unknown which is why this works so well despite the fact that no one is ever going to be accosted by a real Swamp Thing at summer camp.

The whys may be known for the everyday threats (why a person snapped and went on a killing spree, for example) but it’s usually not known until afterward. In the moment it’s still unknown and terrifying. Add to that the fact that these are threats that actually could happen and that multiplies the fear factor. Take Silence of the Lambs. It’s not usually thought of as a horror film but Buffalo Bill and Hannibal are terrifying psychopaths. The scene where Bill’s captive discovers the bloody fingernails of previous victims in the pit? Pure horror.

Not comfortable with something that psychotic? How about this: In Joe Hill’s The Fireman (spoiler alert) the scariest people aren’t those with supernatural abilities. It’s the ordinary humans. High stress situations often bring out the worst in people and Joe highlights that in this book. The actions of the “normal” people are far more horrifying then those affected by the supernatural. Dan Wells does something similar in I Am Not a Serial Killer. In this book Dan pits a teenage sociopath against a demon serial killer. It’s a fascinating contrast! Yes, both of those examples are technically horror novels but I think that they do a marvelous job showing how the supernatural and everyday horrors can be juxtaposed to highlight the other.

How about something far more ordinary. What if your character has Alzheimers? Their memory fades in and out. As the story goes on they know less and less until they have no idea who their caregivers are. They think they’re being held against their will and try to escape but their captors catch them every time. From whichever POV you choose it’s a scary situation. The Alzheimers patient thinks they’ve been abducted while the caregiver is terrified of them getting lost in a nearby wooded area or hit by a car if they get out of the facility/house.

I feel I should mention that this type of horror should be used with care. Because you don’t have the safety of reality to reassure the reader it can linger in the mind. Also depending on the everyday horror that you use it might even overshadow the plot. It’s definitely something to be considered carefully before inserting it into your story. If that’s the exact effect you want, then perfect! But if you’re writing a light romance novel, having the villain go full Hannibal Lector on the heroine might be a bit too much. Plus it’s a good idea to at least hint at these elements being present in the blurb. A lot of real world horrors have real world survivors and the last thing any writer wants do is to unwittingly trigger a reader’s PTSD.

As terrifying as Lovecraftian horrors are, using real world horrors can make your stories far more terrifying. Whether you use a small one or a big one, it’s really useful and effective way to make your story interesting without falling into a trope.

So You’ve Written Yourself Into a Corner…

Every writer has been there. Your plot is humming along. Your protagonist is sidestepping or hurtling every obstacle you throw at them, and they are well on their way to the climactic, final showdown. Suddenly, BAM! You find them squarely in a situation that you can’t see your way out of. You’ve written yourself into a corner.

It’s honestly one of the worst feelings in writing. That awful, “Oh no, how much am I going to have to change to make this work?” feeling of time and effort wasted. It sucks. But take a moment and collect yourself. We’re here to help.

FIrst, take comfort in the fact that every writer has (or will have) experienced this feeling. Those who prefer the “pantsing” style will generally feel the pain far more and probably have developed thick calluses to it, but even the most ardent outliner will have a logical hiccup in their plan every now and then and find themselves having to fight their way back out of it.

There are varying ways to tackle the problem. Which one to apply depends entirely on two factors: how systemic the damage is and the level of the writer’s improvisational skills.

But before I go into specifics, there is one rule you must obey above all when trying to correct the problem of having written yourself into a corner: Use this as an opportunity to make the story better. 

I don’t mean better in the sense of “I had written myself into a corner and now I’ve fixed it.” Go beyond just fixing the problem. Use the fix to illuminate your characters more, or to reveal richer details of your worldbuilding, or to make your plot flow more elegantly. Seeing this as an opportunity serves more purpose than simply resulting in a better story than you had before. It also helps you avoid the psychic toll of feeling as though you’ve wasted a bunch of your time writing into a dead-end. Pull this off, and you’ll be happy you screwed up, because the end result will be that much better.

The first thing you have to do is analyze the problem and the context surrounding it. Are you happy with the book up until this point? Or has the story become more like a beater car, struggling more and more to make headway as it gradually falls apart, with this dead-end being the final straw?

If things had been just fine up until the dead-end, then you probably don’t have to do all that much to fix it and probably aren’t even reading this for advice. Backtrack as far as needed and make a few changes to foreshadow a solution, or change the scenario entirely into something that works.

But sometimes a dead-end is merely a symptom of a larger problem. You can almost think of it as your subconscious’s way of forcing you to really look and see the larger issues of the story. I’ve run into this before where two hundred pages into a book, I realized that my protagonist’s actions didn’t line up at all with his personality. As Dave Heyman discussed a couple of days ago, I had to tear the story down to the studs and basically start over with a premise and some characters.

Hopefully your problem won’t require such drastic measures. Is your dead-end more character-focused but not something you can easily rewrite? Luckily for you, people are very complex creatures, full of flaws and contradictions. Think about a real person you know well. I’m guessing that most of their personality will angle in a certain direction, but that you’ll have noticed that they have a few weird tics as well that don’t seem to jibe with the rest. This sort of thing is a great way to add richness and complexity to your characters. As long as you foreshadow a character behavior a couple of times in advance, you shouldn’t have any trouble tweaking the character enough to allow for the behavior while not breaking them.

If your dead-end is more centered around logistics or plot mechanics, now’s your chance to showcase the world your character inhabits. Especially if its a science fiction or fantasy story, there are any number of ways to add a cool worldbuilding wrinkle that will enable your character to progress. Just make sure that you backtrack and insert that wrinkle (or hints of it) liberally throughout the early portion of your story, to avoid a deus ex machina situation.

If you’re REALLY lucky, you can find yourself with what I like to call the Sublime Solution. This is where those of us who practice the pantsing style of writing really come into our own. Consider: are there any other loose threads of your story dangling out there, things you put in because they just seemed really cool and now you don’t know what to do with them, so you’re considering marking them as darlings to be killed? Well, not so fast. Because maybe, just maybe, you can find a way to tie one or more of those loose threads into a rope to hoist your character free of their dead end. If you can pull this off, it’s one of the best feelings in writing. I had a situation like that arise while working on Ungrateful God, picking up a thread that had been dangling since early in Unwilling Souls and, well… saying any more would be telling. 🙂

In summary, finding yourself written into a corner is both quite common and no reason to panic. Indeed, if you look at it as an opportunity to strengthen your story the annoyance factor … diminishes. Saying it goes away would be a lie, because it’s annoying every single time. But with experience it gets easier to see it for the backhanded gift that it is.

Because it’s always better for you to find and fix the problem before a reader does.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and the upcoming Dragon Writers Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Promise – A Double Nickel Story

Gideon turned away from the scene as the blue planet’s atmosphere shredded like paper. The swelling star would soon absorb the remains of the world and the species known as man. There was no last, frantic attempt to leave Earth despite their knowledge and abilities. The whole experiment was lost. Mankind once possessed such promise.