This week: Make It ScarierEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about making a story scarier for the characters and the reader.
“My test of a good novel is dreading to begin the last chapter.”
~ Thomas Helm
“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.”
~ John LeCarre
Make It Scarier
Your Character Needs MORE Problems
Okay -- You have a good idea for a story, an exciting plot, an interesting main character, and a creepy antagonist. You’re ready to go, right?
Not quite. You want to make sure the story is as scary and exciting as possible, something that will grab your reader’s attention and not let go!
But how can you make your story scarier?
More gore or death?
More, bigger monsters? How many are enough?
Recently, we’ve seen that more CGI doesn’t necessarily make a better movie. It may be entertaining, but it’s ultimately a disappointment because the audience can’t connect with one-dimensional characters. It’s the same with short stories and novels.
A great way to make your story scarier is to give the character fundamental problems that exist outside of the plot developments. Think of the character as a racehorse. A racehorse struggles to get to the front of the pack and cross the finish line first. But handicap races force the horse to carry extra weight, so it’s harder for him to win. Similarly, you have to find extra weight to for your character to carry. You have to find burdens and fundamental problems the character has no control over -- these will excite your reader because they can’t imagine how the character can overcome it all and win at the end.
How to Burden Your Characters
After you have the basic plot of your story, you need to imagine what kind of person would have the hardest time going on the adventure you’ve planned.
If the story is about fighting giant spiders, then someone who’s afraid of spiders (arachnophobia) would have the hardest time. If the story requires the character to work closely with a group of people, then make him painfully shy or a loner who doesn’t like people.
Here are five types of fundamental burdens you can place on your characters:
Discomfort or “I’m No Good at That”
Force your character to go outside his comfort zone. Got an adventure in the wilderness? Put in a character who hates the outdoors and misses being online. Got a ghost story in a haunted house? Make your character a no-nonsense, science-oriented geek, who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Got a story about someone who has to go undercover at a beauty pageant? Make her a clumsy tomboy who doesn’t fit in. (Sound familiar? That’s “Miss Congeniality.”)
This is probably the easiest to do and usually gets the reader’s sympathy. It’s hard enough to beat the monster, but it’s MUCH harder if your character has a physical impediment, like asthma, diabetes, or a weak leg due to a past accident, etc. If you’re really brave, you can make your character blind as in “Wait Until Dark” or “Jennifer 8.”
Phobias and Obsessions
Characters with phobias or obsessions will make unreasonable decisions, making it harder for them to overcome the plot problems or the villain. Got a monster living in the sewers beneath the city? Make your character afraid of germs or obsessed with looking good. Traipsing around the sewers would be disgusting for them. Got a bank being hit by robbers where the character must make rapid decisions or die? Make the character obsessive-compulsive about counting things, like in the 2011 film, “Flypaper.”
Reluctant Hero or “I Don’t Want To!”
Sometimes, the hero just doesn’t want to go on the adventure. Maybe he has a family or a sibling to take care of, or he just got his dream job or a scholarship to a great school. Maybe he’s been treated badly and just doesn’t want to help people. In the 2011 film, “Attack the Block,” the hero is a violent, selfish gang leader. He doesn’t want to help anyone, but when aliens attack his neighborhood, this reluctant hero gradually gets involved and does his best to protect those around him. (“Attack the Block” is an awesome horror movie. See it as soon as you can! )
Counter-Culture and Bias
1) Make the character a rebel, one whose thoughts run contrary to his/her culture, time period, or social norms. Perhaps they think things aren’t fair for themselves or others and want to fight to improve things. Got a zombie story that takes place in 1800? A rebellious woman who “doesn’t know her place” will have a hard time fighting off zombies if she’s told such actions are “unladylike” as in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
2) Make the character have a bias against someone for cultural, ethnic or religious reasons, or even because they’re from a “rival” family. Then like Romeo and Juliet, the two people who are dissimilar -- or even enemies -- are forced to work together and must solve their differences if they are to succeed in beating the antagonist. In “Underworld,” a vampire must help her mortal enemy, a werewolf, and in the 2010 film, “Predators,” all the characters are from different ethnic backgrounds and hate each other from the beginning.
When you know what the plot of your story is, imagine a person who’d have the hardest time with those circumstances and put that character in the story.
By giving your character a fundamental problem (outside of the plot) you make it harder for them to win against the antagonist and the story becomes more exciting for the reader.
Some fundamental problems, like physical weaknesses or phobias, can make your character even more sympathetic to readers. The more the reader likes the character, the more scared they’ll be for the character.
By giving the character extra burdens, you’ll deepen the characterization and make your story more unique and memorable for readers.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories for your reading pleasure!
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Your full time Horror Newsletter Editors:
Brooke - Working my way back Kate ~ Midsummer Night Rune billwilcox
and LJPC - the tortoise .
To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Evil Pronouns" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Vampyr14 writes: Another great newsletter! Mis-use of pronouns is something I see all the time. Especially the one where the pronoun is referring to the wrong thing.
Yeah. It’s easy to make pronoun mistakes, and it’s so annoying and confusing for the reader. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
Taniuska writes: I always try to get it straight in my head what I will refer to a creature as before I write, but it's easy to slip up sometimes. Reading out loud does the trick, along with awesome critique partners.
You’re absolutely right -- the only good way to fix those pronoun problems is by editing and getting feedback from others. Huge congrats on the release of your new book, ”Cloaked in Fur - Amazon Link” from ”Crimson Romance Books” ! I’m so thrilled for you!
9 years whew! writes: This is an exceptional NL. I have some of the issues listed above. I have a story that involves action by one character. How do you cut down using He/She in describing the action? I cut as many out and it sounds funny in my ear? Maybe I'm tone deaf?
Sometimes you can’t cut out the pronouns, but what you can do is make sure that you vary the sentence subjects and structures, so the pronouns don’t seem repetitive.
She dove through the doorway and grabbed the gun from the table. She spun around, ready to fire at the beast behind her, but nothing was there. She tiptoed to the hall and glanced both ways. The beast was gone.
The above can be changed so there are different sentences structures to break up the “She (verb)…” lines, like this:
She dove through the doorway, grabbed the gun from the table, and spun around, ready to fire at the beast behind her. Her finger trembled on the trigger, but nothing had leaped into the room after her. Sweat trickled down her forehead. She tiptoed to the hall and glanced both ways. The creature was gone.
I hope this helped, and thanks for replying to the newsletter! (Feel free to email me if you have questions.)
BIG BAD WOLF submits "The Hunt" and writes: Sometimes you have to make one wonder.
Yes, it’s always good to keep the reader guessing.
Nixie~surgery nothing horrible writes: My problem with problem with pronouns is overuse.
From: "Too Hot to Handle"
"That self-assured, languid manner of his irked her, and she took several deep breaths to steady her nerves and strengthen her resolve."
I could write "That self-assured, languid manner of his irked her, and Crystal took several deep breaths, calming nerves and strengthening resolve."
Would I need to add [her] before [nerves]?
I've been researching ways to avoid these issues, and the alternative seems to lie in restructuring sentences. Any thoughts?
That’s a clever fix you’ve got there! I don’t think you need the “her” before nerves and resolve. I would suggest changing the first part to: “His self-assured, languid manner irked her, and Crystal…” in order to avoid “his irked her,” which is a bit awkward. Researching the craft of writing is always good, so keep it up. Also, if you take a look at my response to 9 years whew! above, you’ll see I’ve suggested varying sentence structure and subject, too. I hope this helps, and thanks so much for replying to the newsletter, Nixie!
CREEK writes: Normally, I write only poetry except an only short story I have written so far! But, I just wanted to read your newsletter and I was not disappointed. It was very useful. As a non-native writer, I too make similar mistakes and your article and activities was a very good exercise for me. You have presented them in a very informative way so that anyone can be benefited by your newsletter. Hope to read more. I would be thankful to you if you can write some hints on writing a short story. introductory paragraphs, character development etc... Thanks for your service.
I’m very pleased the newsletter helped you! I’ve written many newsletters to help writers with their craft. For introductory paragraphs, see my newsletter "The Hook" , and for all my other newsletters, look at the top of this newsletter, right above the heading “Table of Contents” and you’ll see ”More Newsletters By This Editor I'm sure you'll find something helpful in those.
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