WriterDrome: Three-Legged Dog

WriterDrome is an ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish Horror Fiction in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. I’m still unsure if this is going to be a monthly or weekly column. Lively discussion is highly encouraged.

Three-Legged Dog

Before everyone starts screaming, I love all animals, especially dogs.  A three-legged dog is, in my opinion, the true champion dog, a survivor with a passion for life regardless of its handicap.  A friend of mine has a three-legged dog, and it find simply amazing that this dog apparently doesn’t let the loss of a limb effect its ability to be a dog. Now comes the part where I try to turn this into an analogy about writing Horror Fiction. Wish me luck.

A Horror story is a three-legged dog. Big stretch, I know, so bear with me. Think of the dog, standing at attention (or just waiting on you to feed him), and each leg represents one of the pieces of the puzzle that make up Story: Plot, Characterization, and Style. Three legs to stand on. 

So now you have this image…right? Good. Obviously, there are other parts that form a story. For general purposes I’m going to call Logistics (Timeline, Setting, etc.) the exoskeleton, which I will spend more time on in a future column.  

This three-legged dog wants to play and run, and in the initial drafts of the story, it’s important to give your dog lots of space to do this. Once you get moving on the story, things begin to sort themselves out. Your stick figure characters grow hair, their eyes change colors, and their personalities change. With these changes, your story evolves as well. Motivations shift, alliances corrode and a winning situation turns into Epic Fail.

One thing I try to do in these early stages is to run a few story tests. One way to test your story is to take away the Horror element and see if it still works. This is usually when the first draft is done. How strong is my story if there were no vampires or ghosts or monsters? With some minor tweaking,  a strong story should still be a story even if you remove the Horror from it.

Example time.

Our dog’s name, for this example, is Shine, from The Shining by Stephen King. Shine is a three-legged dog. Imagine this dog without the Horror element. Danny Torrance and Dick Hallorann are not psychic, and the ghosts of the Overlook are not using Jack Torrance as an instrument of their own reindeer games.  Without these fantastical elements, the story can still stand on three legs. The dog’s a little wobbly,  but that’s okay. Danny remembers Jack’s drunken rages and retreats into a deep comatose state that makes Wendy desperate to get him out of the Overlook. Jack finds a liquor cabinet and fuels his cabin fever with alcohol. Wendy gets through on the radio, prompting the dispatcher to reach Dick Hallorann by phone and get him on the way out there to save the day. It’s easy to see how this story could have worked, because it’s essentially what happened.

Of course, this isn’t the story we all know and love.

What changed?

Mr. King, that’s what. Mr. King gave it the old ‘phantom limb’. A phantom limb is a term used by people who have lost a limb. It describes the sensation and perception that they can still ‘feel’ their missing limb.  Their mind remembers touching things, like feeling an objects texture. Sometimes the sensation is not tactile. Occasionally the person feels a ‘pins and needles’ sensation as though their missing limb is still there and has just gone to sleep. We know our dog Shine can stand on three legs because we’ve given it the story test. Sure he’s a little unbalanced, but as long as we don’t push him too hard, he’ll still stand. Add the Horror element, the ‘phantom limb’ and now he’s seasoned, knows what to expect, and has this secret inner knowledge that yes, sometimes, it doesn’t feel like anything is different at all. Our three-legged dog has adapted it’s handicap into a way of life. 

Subsequent drafts need to merge the supernatural elements to the other legs of the story. Now, your focus is to make sure your story is just as strong with the Horror as it is without it. The fantastical elements should never take away from the story, only enhance it. King does this by making Danny psychic, as well as Mr. Hallorann. The Overlook Hotel is truly haunted, and its ghostly presence attaches itself to Jack Torrance. He also does this by making these horrifying manifestations intensely personal. This is the phantom limb, something only the writer knows is there. To the reader, this limb is invisible. To them, they’re reading a story written with confidence and authority. If the story was a three-legged dog, that’s all you would see. But the dog (the story) has a secret you can never see, and this secret (the phantom limb) is what guides it while it runs and plays with you.

As a writer, your job is make sure your reader never sees this limb. The reader only knows that this is a Horror story, and is a story that he/she couldn’t imagine happening any other way. The reality is the Horror is just the icing on the cake, the phantom limb that makes the story run through the fields in their minds. And when our story is running through our readers minds, that’s when our job is done.


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