Freddy Krueger Just Wanted To Be Loved: Creating Villains We Love To Hate.

HorrorDrome is an ongoing discussion of the mechanics of writing scary Horror fiction. Here the Horror Story is split open top to bottom, bloody gears and tropes exposed for all to see. The goal: By picking apart the stories we love, we learn what makes them tick. I’m certainly no expert, but after writing for nearly twenty years, I feel I’ve got a few things to pass along to my fellow writers. The views expressed here are merely opinions, not facts. Lively discussion is encouraged. 

Freddy Krueger Just Wanted To Be Loved: Creating Villains We Love To Hate.

Physics. It controls every part of our physical life. For every action, there is an opposite reaction. The hero in your story creates action, but only because it’s a reaction. He certainly doesn’t go looking for a villain. If Dr. Cutthroat didn’t kidnap Joe Hero’s girl because she has beautiful blonde hair, then Joe Hero would most likely wander through life with his girl, living happily ever after, and that’s not a story at all, or at least it’s not a Horror story. Once she’s kidnapped, Joe Hero has a goal, which is to get his girl back from Dr. Cutthroat at all costs. 

Dr. Cutthroat has a goal as well. He wants to kidnap and hold captive all the women with beautiful blonde hair. He knows blonde hair has magic powers that, when properly channelled and controlled, will grant him power over all the people of the world. And Lord knows they need control. Crime at an all time high, people killing each other just because they can, the world is a cesspool of filth and despair, and only Dr. Cutthroat can help the people of world get back on track. They need him more than ever, and he’s coming, right after he kidnaps all the girls with beautiful blonde hair. 

An elementary  example, but nonetheless it shows us that your bad guy must have a goal. Now, before you start moaning about all the mindless, nonhuman, just want to kill and eat brains, monsters out there, I’m not talking about them. Yes, they have goals, but their goals are instinctual. You’re a monster and you need brains to survive, then you’re eating brains, end of discussion. Mindless monsters with instinctual goals are fun to write, but that’s a whole other blog. 

What about villains like Dr. Cutthroat? As far as story physics goes, he is action, mass in motion, opposed only by his obstacle, Joe Hero, who is reaction, mass in motion, opposed to Dr. Cutthroat. And really, Cutthroat doesn’t care about Joe at all, he is nothing more than insignificant collateral damage. It’s only when Joe decides to get his girl back that Cutthroat even realizes he has an enemy. That’s right. Joe Hero is Dr. Cutthroat’s enemy.

But wait, isn’t Cutthroat Joe’s enemy? 

When you experience a story, certain connections are made in your mind. One of these connections correlates directly to your mind’s need for symmetry. We seek balance. When the bad guy gets the upper-hand in a story, that balance is shifted, which creates suspense. Will Joe Hero defeat Dr. Cutthroat and get his beautiful blonde back? When the hero gets the upper-hand, the balance shifts again, releasing tension, yet apprehension is there, because you wonder if what he did was enough to stop the villain for good. 

Action and reaction. Opposite yet asymmetrical, building tension and suspense. Just as Joe Hero has a goal, getting his girl back, Dr. Cutthroat has a goal, making the world a better place. Both are passionate about their goals. You may not agree with Dr. Cutthroat’s goal. You might think he is crazy as Hell and his grand scheme will never work, but that doesn’t matter. What will make Dr. Cutthroat a compelling character is the fact that HE believes in his goal. For him, kidnapping all the beautiful blondes in the world makes perfect sense. It’s the only way he can get the magic he needs to make the world a better place. He is just as passionate about his crazy-ass goal as Joe Hero is about getting his girl back. Dr. Cutthroat believes in this because he’s seen the evil that people do. He may have had a hard life with a poor family, barely getting by, happiness nothing more than the occasional birthday party and the warmth of a cuddly puppy, or he may have grown up with an affluent family, attending the best schools and making frat-buddies for life. These things shaped his outlook on the world, for better or worse, just like those same things shaped Joe Hero’s world. So Dr. Cutthroat believes his goal is right, and true, and just. There is no other way, he must gain that magic. The more he believes in his goal, the more believable he becomes to your readers. It is his passion, whether you believe he is right or wrong, that makes him a believable, compelling character. And yes, you’d better make him passionate about his goal or your reader is not going to care about him as a character. Don’t confuse caring about a character with liking a character.

There is a deeper action/reaction dynamic that writers must tap into so readers fall in love with our characters, heroes and villains alike. This is what I call The Empathy-Relate Factor. An example of this is Freddy Krueger. Freddy scares us with our nightmares so we already like him because, face it, we like being scared. Going a little deeper we find that Freddy’s goal is to kill the children of the families that burned him alive. Already the empathy factor is building. We start to care about him. We care about him because he wants revenge to right what he feels is a wrong. Trust me, you care about him. The feeling is instinctual, and purely psychological. You don’t like his goal, but you do care about him and how he plans to achieve his goal. If you didn’t care, there would be no story. You would never side with a child killer in real life, yet if you didn’t care about what Freddy was doing, and why he was doing it, he would be a boring character in a movie that never would have ever spawned a single sequel, or become a household name. Freddy’s goal becomes important for us because it continuously shifts the balance. Yet Freddy’s goal fulfills the Empathy-Relate Factor we seek in every story we experience. Every time one of the kid’s get closer to the truth about what happened to Freddy, he busts out his glove and slashes away at them. Freddy shifts the balance, creating suspense and tension. Since this is why we watched the film to begin with, we are rewarded. That reward is short-lived as the hero’s character physics takes over, tipping the scales again. Freddy is an action, the kids the reaction. This tug-o-war of conflicts makes the story. Without compelling characters, each with goals they care about, the story would never come off the ground. 

Remember, every action has an opposite reaction. Your villain must have a goal, and he must be passionate about it. Attaining the goal means everything to your villain, and he believes that what he is doing is right above all else. Make your villain relatable to your reader, and build empathy, and then you’ve got a villain they love to hate, which is the stuff of legends. Write a villain with this in mind, and your readers will care about your villain, and your story. Who knows, they might even like your bad guy too. 

“Hey, didja eat yet?” “Naw, didju?” WriterDrome: Dialogue Part III

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres 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. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

“Hey, didja eat yet?” “Naw, didju?”: Dialogue Part III 

“Hell, I was born here, an’ I was raished here, an’ dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin bushwackin, hornswaglin, cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter.”

 Gabby Johnson–Blazing Saddles.

 What?

Exactly. Fans of the film no doubt have this memorable quote in their arsenal, as it is one of those dialect phrases that is best spoken instead of read. I copied and pasted it right from the internet like that to prove a point. If Blazing Saddles was a novel instead of a movie, that line of dialogue would have been cut out, or at least severely edited before the book made it into print. Why? Because writing that line of dialogue in fiction is considered amateurish and unprofessional. 

Now, before a riot starts, I know exactly what you’re going to say. “But I read so-and-so’s book and he uses dialect written like that…why can’t I use it as well?” There are millions of examples of millions of writers breaking all the rules, all the time. The reasons for the rule breaking and the exception of those rules are legion, but that doesn’t mean you should break them as well. Remember that before your contract is inked up and signed, you are in a long list of writers hoping for a lucky break, and you need to follow the rules as much as you can. Let the amateurs fail to get the contract because their dialogue technique is terrible. 

Writing dialect is difficult because we are trying to incorporate how words sound into a form that can be read by anyone. We want these words to sound different because we want our characters speaking the words to be different. By deliberately placing these sounds into our readers heads, we are shaping how they experience the character. This is counterproductive to the way readers form their mental imagery of our characters. Dialect is characterization through dialogue, therefore you must follow the rule: Less is more. 

 “Hell, I was born here, and I was raised here. Damn, I’m going to die here too, and no sidewinding, bushwacking, hornswagling, cracker croaker is going to ruin my damn gutter.”

No misspelled words, no letters omitted, yet it still reads as authentic frontier gibberish because of the words I used. I cleaned up the bishen cutter part at the end because the consensus is the words mean gutter, and Gabby Johnson was just a poor frontier settler, living in the gutter, yet proud of Rock Ridge and ready to fight for it. The humor remains because I used words like hornswagling and cracker croaker, which give the lines some rhythm and tone. One cannot read those lines aloud without hearing the Old West, whether they’ve seen the film or not.  Remove the funny sounding words like hornswagling and cracker croaker and the entire tone of the line turns dark, almost menacing. 

Handling characters from non-English speaking countries is a little more difficult. Where before you were attempting to characterize a region or socioeconomic aspect of a character, now you’re attempting to characterize a foreign aspect through dialogue. It’s easy to fall into the trap of accenting the accent. 

 “I vould like to go to zee hotel.”

Unless you want all of your foreign characters to sound like a French Bela Lugosi, avoid this at all costs. Russian characters sound different from French characters, who sound different from Austrian characters, and so on. British characters speak English but don’t sound American. Same for Australian characters. 

 So how do we make them distinct? 

British characters seem easy because they speak English. The distinction is the British own the English language, something to keep in mind when using them as characters. The United Kingdom is huge, encompassing several countries. People from Great Britain speak differently from those of Ireland and Scotland. Even within those separate countries distinct dialects emerge, causing more confusion for the uninitiated. You could give your British, Irish or Scottish character a catch-phrase to use that sounds un-American–sounds simple enough–but be careful. Don’t just invent a catch phrase off the cuff, do some research. Read books written by British, Irish, and Scottish authors to get an idea how they get the dialect across. Find something that is short yet distinctive. As long as you don’t over use the phrase, it is an easy way to make sure your reader knows who is talking and that they are not American. Your British character may be a little older, been around the block a few times, and refers to good-looking women as ‘birds’. Incorporate that into his speech occasionally for a little distinction and diversity. When writing a British character, please make sure to not use words one would only hear in America. Again, research can help with authenticity. The character may be speaking English, but if they’re not American, that makes a major difference in the words they say. 

Characters from non-English speaking countries usually prove to be the most difficult. Nothing infuriates me more than reading a book full of foreign phrases and the author fails to provide me any clue to what the character was saying. Some people like this, say it lends a little more credibility to the character, makes it read more realistic. To each their own. I say, if you must use a foreign word or phrase, please clue me in on what it means, especially if you want me to keep on reading. My currently in-development-hell novel Blood Junkies uses such a phrase in German, and I manage to keep it’s meaning a secret until the end of Act I. Don’t think that I didn’t want to let the reader in on the secret sooner. It was difficult, but I knew it would be revealed later, so I made it’s meaning part of the story, so at least the reader knew I would eventually let them in on the secret, which made it a little more mysterious. If the word or phrase is not central to the plot, then by all means tell the reader what it means as soon as possible. 

Foreign characters speaking English as a second language can be tricky. If the character is well-educated and has mastered the English language, you may be able to solve this problem by simply giving them a foreign name and keeping their language as well spoken and educated as possible. It may be crude and simple, but actually works quite well. When faced with a character who may not be so educated, incorporating that into their dialogue can prove to be a challenge. Remember, less is more. Listen to people when they speak, especially if English is their second language. You will hear patterns in the way they arrange their words. Often foreign people mix up the order of their words, or use elementary words in place of more sophisticated words, when speaking English.

 “I see you hold your purse close to the body, like a little shivering doggie. Maybe it is you who is shivering?”

Written in plain English, this example quickly shows the reader that the speaker has learned English as a second language. The word doggie is the give away. When is the last time you heard an English-speaking adult use that word? How did this speaker learn English? He may have taken an actual class, which teaches foreigners how to read and write and speak much like how we teach our children in English-speaking countries to read and write and speak, starting at an elementary level and working up. 

 “Holding your purse close, like a shivering pup. Maybe you’re the one who’s shivering, little bird.”

That could have been spoken by a British character. In this case, the distinction should be clarified sooner, without dialogue, that way when this character does speak, the reader knows the person speaking is speaking English, yet not American. You cannot rely on dialect and dialogue alone to characterize the people in your story. British writers surely have the same problems writing American characters. The language is the same, so they have to listen to the way American’s put their sentences together, the words they use and the order they use them. 

Quite a few writing instructors and editors preach about not using profanity and swearing in your story, especially your dialogue. They say people don’t really talk that way. I say phooey on that. More people from all walks of life use more profanity and swear words today than ever before. They say if you overuse profanity and swear words, those words lose their impact when you do use them, and I tend to agree with that to some extent. Make the words fit the character. You may want to have a character in your story never cuss or swear at all. Imagine the impact of the use of a single swear word when it’s the only one in the whole fucking story. 

If you take the time to think about the character, what they are saying, and how they are saying it, there’s no reason for them to be all Americans, all speaking the same way, or all French, or British, or whatever. Use the words they say and how they say them as a tool to characterize your story people, and only use those words to advance the plot of the story. Remember, if your dialogue is not advancing the plot of the story, then you’re slowing the story down to a halt, and when that happens, your reader halts as well. 

WriterDrome: “I repeat,” repeated Alex.

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres 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. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

Photo property of Bob Pastorella. Blood provided by Bob Pastorella’s finger.

 WriterDrome: “I repeat,” repeated Alex. Dialogue Part II

 

Care to take a guess where I’m going with this article? 

That’s right, I’m covering Dialogue Tags. This is one of my favorite subjects, one of the few where I get to rant. I’ll try to be brief with the ranting. Many years ago when I started writing, I didn’t know squat about writing dialogue. I knew my characters needed to be talking, so talk they did, usually very poorly and more often than not they didn’t have anything to say about the story. This was before I learned that dialogue is used to advance the plot. All I knew was talking was needed. When I decided to get serious about my craft, I read a few books about how to write fiction. I couldn’t wait to get to the chapter(s) about dialogue, hoping to learn more tags like chortled, gasped, exclaimed. I needed more words like that to help make sure my readers understood what my characters were feeling when they talked in my stories. Imagine my dismay when the first book forcefully instructed me to only use the word ‘said’. 

Said?

How boring. The next book I read about writing also told me I needed to use ‘said’, but this time, the author explained why ‘said’ is so important, and it sunk in. Sunk in deep. Now when I see any tag other than ‘said’, the red pen strikes it out like it’s a cancer. Said is the best tag. If you think of a better tag than said, use said anyway, it’s still better. 

Crude Example:

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John whined.

“Tell me now, dammit!” Dave screamed.

First, using ‘asked’ as a tag is permissible when a character is asking a question. Second, we have to look for ways to make this crude example better. Will simply changing ‘whined’ and ‘screamed’ to ‘said’ fix it? No, we need more than that. We must understand why the writer chose those tags to begin with.

John whined is an effort to make the reader understand how John is feeling. We have a bit of dialogue–I don’t know what you’re talking about–the showing part of the exchange, and John whined, the telling part. The writer is using the telling part of the exchange to give us an idea of how John is feeling, when it would have been much easier, and stronger, to do that in the showing part. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John said.

“Tell me now, dammit!” Dave screamed.

See how those few words give us a little insight into John. This exchange is almost done. The last thing is the last sentence, especially the exclamation point. It’s rare when a writer uses an exclamation point properly, so unless you know what you are doing, do not use that form of punctuation in your fiction. So how do we tell the reader that Dave is angry?

We don’t.

We show the reader.

Now, I do not advocate using swear words or slang simply because they can become repetitive and annoying, but if your character’s language has been fairly clean for the most part, a well placed ‘motherfucker’ can work wonders. Use it sparingly.

Another way would be to carefully choose the words Dave is screaming, so that the reader knows he angry without telling him that Dave is angry. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John said.

“You had better tell me right now, dammit,” Dave said. 

This is better, proper, but it’s still not strong. Okay, okay, I can hear you all groaning …Well, Bob, since we can only used ‘asked’ or ‘said’ what do we do now?

Physical tags. Not only will they indicate who is speaking, but the action allows you to show the reader your character’s feelings. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John said.

Dave grabbed at John’s arm, missed it, then clinched his fist. “You had better tell me right now, dammit.”  

Not too bad for a crude example. We can use physical tags for the entire exchange, but it’s best to mix things up. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

 John squirmed in his chair. “I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dave grabbed at John’s arm, missed it, then clinched his fist. “You had better tell me right now, dammit.”  

Now we have a nice dialogue exchange without a single said. So why is ‘said’ better than saying something like ‘groaned’, or ‘gasped’. The reason is because ‘said’ is invisible. It works because it identifies who is speaking without bringing attention to itself, therefore allowing the words you chose for your characters to do the job they need to do, which is advancing the plot. 

Damn, I love it when my lessons start making connections. 

So when in doubt, always use ‘said’, it is truly the best choice for a tag. Chose your dialogue words wisely, and if you must relay more emotion into the exchange, use a physical tag to get your idea across. 

Next month is the final part of my Dialogue lesson, in which I’ll cover slang and cursing, foreign words and dialects, and how not to sound like a redneck when writing redneck. 

WriterDrome: That’s What She Said

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres 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. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

WriterDrome: That’s What She Said: Dialogue Part I

Ask any beginning writer why have dialogue in a story and they’ll tell you that dialogue is how characters give one another information. The fallacy in this line of thinking is that dialogue, communication, is how real people give one another information. The characters in our stories are not real people. Our characters are only as real as is needed for the story, which is the very tip of the iceberg of what a real person is.

So if our characters are not real people, then why do they speak to each other?

Our character’s dialogue serves one purpose only: To advance the plot.

So how do we use dialogue to advance the plot of our story?

One day I’ll cover the plot in more detail, but for this essay, here’s the basics. You should NEVER plot like this:

Plot Point A, and then Plot Point B, and then Plot Point C, and then, etc.

PLOT LIKE THIS:

Plot Point A, BUT Plot Point B, therefore Plot Point C, BUT, etc.

Our character’s dialogue follows in this fashion as well. It is how dialogue advances the plot. This means that the words your characters say to one another must be significant. Every word counts, even the words you leave off the page.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I don’t know.”

Taken out of context, this exchange, though crude, appears to have all the mechanisms to make it work in a story. But if our goal is advancing the plot with dialogue, then all we’ve really done is set ourselves up for another exchange. We are delaying the scene. Granted, there are times when this may be necessary, but let’s say that this is not one of those times. Let’s say this is one of those times when the tension is high. One character is wondering if the other is turning against him. He wants to know why he failed to tape a gun under a desk. “I don’t know.” is only delaying the confrontation, and you, the writer, badly need a confrontation.

Remember, you don’t need an ‘and then’, you need a ‘BUT’, a ‘therefore’. If all your writing is ‘and then’ dialogue situations, then your dialogue isn’t going anywhere, and it’s certainly not advancing the plot.

Remember: Never ‘and then’. Always ‘BUT’, always ‘therefore’.

The “I don’t know.” sentence in the dialogue example above is an ‘and then’ statement.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I did tape the gun under the desk.”

BAM! See how it works? Like I said, this is a crude example, but the dynamics are there. Instead of a delay, now you’re advancing the plot. You could have written a dozen different statements there, all affecting the outcome a dozen different ways. The novice writer would have went for the the delay because that’s how the scene played out in his head. The character might have not wanted to say anything out of fear, or because he’s playing the other side of the deal, whatever. But that scene the writer played out in his head is how ‘real people’ would have done it. Remember, our characters are not real people, so their dialogue isn’t real, and the words they say to one another are only used to advance the plot.

Okay, okay…so you want a little hesitation. No problem, just add a Physical Tag. (More on Physical Tags in Part II next month.)

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

Johnson squirmed in the leather seat. “I got scared, okay. Scared out of my mind.”

Not as strong as the previous fix, but it’s not an ‘and then’ statement, so we are advancing the plot with an obstacle that must be overcome.

Sometimes it’s not the words you say, but how you say them.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I taped the gun under the damn desk just like you told me, okay.”

Notice the last sentence is a statement, not a question. This is important because we are mimicking real speech. When you read this sentence and your mind doesn’t see the ‘?’ at the end, the brain doesn’t hear the natural voice inflection at the end like we hear when someone asks us a question. By making the last word a little higher in pitch, we force the listener to make note that we’ve asked them a question.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

“I taped the gun under the damn desk just like you told me, okay?”

In this exchange, the reader hears the higher pitch in the last word, and instantly doesn’t believe the character. Add the squirming in the chair bit, and I won’t believe a word that character says again until he’s proven trustworthy later on, if that happens at all.

Sometimes, it’s not the words we say, or how we say them, but the words we don’t say.

“I explained it all to you in the car. It was so simple. Did you understand what I wanted you to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tape the gun under the desk?”

Johnson turned his head and stared out the window, jaw muscles grinding.

The silence is golden here, because we, as well as the other character, know that Johnson screwed up. The exchange doesn’t end in an ‘And then’ but with a ‘BUT’, which is how we want the exchange to end.

If your plot is nothing but a long string of ‘and then’ situations, then your dialogue will be the same. And then the words your characters say to one another will be flat and lifeless. As writers, flat, lifeless dialogue is the kiss of death, so make the words your characters say to one another significant. When the words they say are significant, then you are advancing the plot, and the reader, to the finish line words: The End.


WriterDrome: Walk The Line, Chalk Line, Panty Line, Outline.

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres 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. Lively discussion is highly encouraged.

WriterDrome: Walk The Line, Chalk Line, Panty Line, Outline. 

Figured that would get your attention. Nothing like the title of a good ‘ole Johnny Cash song to pop a buzzword in your head, right? Today I’m going to discuss a topic most writers despise: Outlining. To some extent, there are some writers that enjoy outlining. For some, the real thrill is not in creating worlds and characters and getting the story down on the page, but in the plotting and researching, and outlining, then plotting some more. Then more plotting and outlining.

When do they ever get any writing done?

Usually never. They are too bogged down in the mechanics of the story to let it live a little, to let it have a life of its own. Trust me, I know this all too well. I have a project on the back-burner right now because I plotted it out too completely, too thoroughly. 

So, if outlines are so bad, why use them at all? If you are thinking about the standard Roman numeral, Alphabetical, Numerical Outline, then yes, that form is bad, in my opinion. Of course, that may be what you use, and if it works for you, then great, keep using it. To me, that form of outline is great for research papers and such, where form, structure, and organization mean just as much as the content of the article. When I started writing longer stories, that was the only form of outline I knew, so I used it constantly. Back then I felt a need to know every aspect of the story, not just the Beginning, Middle and End, but all the parts and characters in between. I felt it was necessary to know exactly, to the detail, how the story was going to end. Using the Standard Outline format allowed me to track that progression to the very end, and made for some boring stories that read flat and dry.

 Every story, no matter the scope or setting, needs organization. Even if your story doesn’t follow any linear path, you do need to know where you are going with the characters. Surely they will guide you in the story as their situations progress, but what happens when Vincent Vega doesn’t take Mia to Jack Rabbit Slims, and Captain Koons never delivers the gold watch to Butch? Without these seemingly unrelated events, you would never get to see Butch kill a very surprised Vincent when he went back to get his gold watch in the hotel room. There’s no doubt in my mind that Quintin Tarantino originally wrote Pulp Fiction in chronological order, then rearranged the scenes to the order we are more accustomed too. To do this, he used a form of outlining to make sure each and every motivation aligned not just with the specific character but also with the story he wanted to tell. 

The form of outlining screenwriters use is called Beat Pages. Each beat, or scene, is briefly sketched out on a page in chronological order. By chronological order, I mean scenes that possibly began long before your actual story starts. You may never use those scenes in the story, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. As a matter of fact, the best writers rarely use those beats, because they’re not necessary to tell the story. They are necessary in most cases for the writer to write the story, and shouldn’t be overlooked. This is the form of outlining I use, and it is much more effective than the Standard Outline. It is a much looser outline, and more open to change in character and structure. 

David Morrell, author of First Blood, Totem, The Brotherhood of The Rose, and many more novels and short-stories, uses a little different outlining method. Starting with a blank piece of paper, he writes a conversation with himself about the project he’s thinking about. It starts with something as innocent as:

“Hello David, how are you today?”

“I’m fine.”

“What is on your mind?”

“I was driving home and saw this…”

He then goes on to talk about what he saw. He will usually ask himself why that particular thing made an impression on him, why does he feel it is so important. Always asking why, why why. The good thing about this form of outlining is that if you ever get stuck, you can go back to that conversation and reread what you wrote. You can even write to yourself again, asking why you feel like you are stuck in the story, what you might be able to do to get around it, whatever. It’s all about connecting with the characters and their story, reliving the emotions you felt when you first thought of the idea, sometimes long before that idea is a story. 

One thing I learned from outlining is to never plot your scenes out too far in advance. Sometimes the whole story will come to you at once, prompting you to outline it all out. That’s fine, some writers work best that way. But if you are anything like me, you’ll soon find yourself at odds with the outline you so meticulously constructed. You will feel imprisoned by the twists and turns of the story characters. As you struggle through the words you realize that the perfect ending is not exactly what your story people have in mind. Conflicted, you push away from the project, unable to break through the walls of the world you created. 

There is hope. Stepping away from the project is a good idea. Sometimes the distance makes us fonder. If you are that far gone and trapped by the outline, then do yourself a favor and find the outline pages with the ending of the story and separate those pages from the outline. Take those ending pages, fold them up, and hide them. You might need them later, but for right now, you just need to forget about them. Work on another project, maybe a short-story, perhaps another novel. Just occupy yourself with another project, something different, even in a different writing style than what you are accustomed. The whole idea is to forget that perfect ending, or at least make its details fuzzy and out of focus. Eventually, if the story is meant to be told, you will come back to the project refreshened and open to new suggestions from your story people about how to resolve their plight. 

This can certainly be done at the beginning stages as well. My latest project, Sirens, suffers from the same fate as mentioned above. I’m working on another project now to make myself forget the ending I trapped myself into. When outlining a story now, I purposely don’t write the ending. Sure I may write a couple of notes, but I do not write out the ending scenes. If you can get away with not outlining the last act of the novel, then by all means try it. Don’t confine yourself before you start pounding out the words. 

Finally, it’s best to think of an outline as just that; An outline, a chalk line, a panty line, designed to merely give us an idea what it is we want to write about. A hint of the story is what we’re after. Nothing in an outline is etched in stone. Remember, the best way to remember something is to write it down. So practice writing your outline down once, try to leave off the ending if you can, and use the outline as a road map to your imagination. 

Happy outlining. 


WriterDrome: The Writer’s Block

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres 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. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

The Writer’s Block

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about Writer’s Block lately. Apparently, the month of January is notorious for it. Fresh off the holidays and it’s a new year, and you really need to get to work on your project. There’s some excitement. You’ve taken your break and now it’s time to get down and dirty with some words. Only when you stare at the screen, or the blank sheet of paper in your notebook if you’re more of an analogue writer, those words you’ve been thinking about just don’t want to come out. Bad thing is, the more you try, the more they want to stay in your head and not on the page.

Why is this?

For the past month, I have been asking myself this very question. Trust me when I say that I honestly do not have a shortage of ideas to write about. Are these ideas actually stories? Maybe not, but with a little thought these ideas could become stories I could write about. But what about the project I wanted to write about, the one I worked on in longhand, plotting and planning, and writing little snippets of dialogue and lists of things my characters wear, eat, drink, like, hate? Why won’t the words come for that story?

For me, I cannot answer that question. I’ve spent, wasted, too much time wondering about something that in the big scheme of things, really doesn’t matter. Some of you may be able to answer the question of why you are ‘blocked’ on your pet project, but knowing the answer may not help you get back on track. To me, this is writer’s block. It’s not the inability to put words on the page, but the inability to get past wondering why you can’t put words on the page.

It doesn’t matter.

It really doesn’t matter.

Especially if there’s something else you want to write about. That may be the thing that’s ‘blocking’ you from your pet project, and the longer you ignore it, the longer you will stay ‘blocked’.

So why don’t you work on something else in the mean time? For many, this is akin to cheating on your spouse or lover. How dare you even suggest this, Bob! Well, yes, I do dare suggest it. I hope your pet project gets raging jealous that you would even think of writing something else.

How does one prevent this blockage from happening?

With my project Sirens, I have the entire story plotted out in a notebook. Beginning, middle and end. All of it. One of the things I’ve read about writing is to not plot too far ahead. Apparently, whoever wrote that was right, because now there’s no flexibility in the story. If this is a project that you’ve just recently plotted and planned, then there really might not be a problem. But if it’s something you worked out ahead of time, say like a year or more, then getting to work on it could prove to be just another way to get a migraine. Time has passed, and as much as you liked the plot you worked out, unconsciously things have changed. Even when you turn off your computer or put the cap on your pen, your brain is still writing. Even if you have to blow the dust off that notebook when you are finally ready to give it a go, your mind has still been working on that story, and it probably has some different ideas than what you previously wrote. When you write something down, even once, it’s carved in stone in your memory, which is a little different than the creative side of your mind.

I honestly believe that I left no flexibility in the story I waited over a year to start working on, and by doing so, even though my mind has been working on it ‘behind the scenes’, my memory has not. This is a conflict. Having some flexibility in the story could solve this problem. Something as simple as thinking of how you want the story to end, but not writing it down at all, can have a profound effect on the words you write, and the story you tell. Now you have some adaptability in the story, allowing your characters to have some breathing room.

Another way to prevent this is to avoid working on it too much at all. This is probably a little easier said than done because we always seem to be working on something, or at least have several irons in the fire, working on another side project surely couldn’t hurt, right? I personally have a hard time doing this because when I finally have an idea that wants to grow up into a story, I have to at least make some notes about it.

What should you do when you are ‘blocked’? Having a plethora of ideas to work from helps. I have several Moleskine notebooks lying around for just this kind of thing. Some only have a few pages of notes in them, but it’s usually just enough to get the words flowing again. This ‘block’ thing can turn into a kind of fear. Trust me, I felt it. Am I good enough for this? What am I thinking, writer’s write. I’m a failure. It’s easy to let those thoughts in. I started to think of all the things I’ve accomplished with writing, and though it is certainly not a lot by any stretch of the imagination, I realized that I’m only human, and I can write, that I am not a failure. Eventually the old drive kicked in. I’m back to writing, and really liking the words that are getting on the page.

Last but not least, it’s is okay to work on another project. It’s not cheating. I feel that working on something else right now will actually help me break through whatever is blocking  me from Sirens. I have to accept the possibility that working on something else may not help me as well. That probably wouldn’t be good for Sirens, but it might be good for me, and I’m the writer, so it’s definitely me first, the story second. 

WriterDrome: Beck Returns To Fight Not Just One Vampire, But To Fight 437 Vampires, er…438 Vampires, um 439, ah…a Whole Bunch of Vampires.

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres 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. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

WriterDrome: Beck Returns To Fight Not Just One Vampire, But To Fight 437 Vampires, er…438 Vampires, um 439, ah…a Whole Bunch of Vampires.

More is not always better, unless you’re talking food or cleaning products. Who doesn’t like more cheese on their pizza? But when it comes to Horror Fiction, usually more vampires doesn’t work. Unless your story follows the logic that more vampires equals less blood, then the Vampire Apocalypse isn’t likely to happen in your story. Of course, they may think they can rule the world, which gives them all the more reason to eliminate one another instead of us tasty humans.

I hate using movies as examples, but I’m going to anyway. The Alien franchise.

(I’m talking about the first two movies. It’s not that Alien Resurrection was a bad film, it was just kind of corny, especially the ending, though that film does have one of Ripley’s best comebacks:

Johner: Hey, Ripley. I heard you, like, ran into these things before?

Ripley: That’s right.

Johner: Wow, man. So, like, what did you do?

Ripley: I died. )

The first one scared the Hell out of us in outer space, where no one can hear you scream. The second film returns us to LV-426, which is now a terraforming colony. James Cameron knows it just can’t be about more Aliens, though more Aliens is one of the logical things that had to happen. There were tons of eggs on the planet, and now there are more people, so logically, there has to be more Aliens. It’s inevitable.

Rule #1. If you must have more __________, make sure you try to even the odds. Cameron does this two ways with the Marines, and bringing Ripley back into the mix. Notice I said try to even the odds. So you’ve got a hundred thousand Aliens. Why not bring in half a million Marines? Job done, but boring, and very short, movie. Nobody wants to see that. The Marines come in ready to eliminate the threat, but find themselves overwhelmed and unprepared. Ripley, on the other hand, has faced these buggers before. She’s experienced, and she’s a survivor.

Rule #2. If you must have more__________, make sure you bring something new to the table. Through very careful misdirection, Cameron leads us down corridor after corridor with Ripley, Newt, and Bishop, killing Aliens, trying to escape the self-destruction of LV-426. We are so caught up in their story, their escape, that when he brings something new to the table, it is both unpredictable yet completely logical. All those eggs on LV-426, something had to hatch them, right? Cameron presents us with the Alien Queen, The Bitch, and let’s Ripley show her who the real Bitch is. By simply including a scene with Ripley using the exosuit cargo-loader early on in the film, he sets the stage for the epic battle between the Bitches. Now, you have use your noggin here. What you bring to the table has to be both unpredictable yet logical. If all the sudden, from out of nowhere, Ash from The Evil Dead shows up with his ‘BoomStick’, you’re going to lose me fast, and probably get sued.

So remember, more isn’t always better, but if you have to have more, follow those two rules, and people will forgive you of upping the Monster factor because you’ve Wowed them by upping the Suspense. Now, if you’re writing about Zombies, well then more is ALWAYS better. There’s nothing better than seeing a handful of survivors fighting hordes and hordes of Zombies, each wave of decaying flesh tearing away at the ranks, decreasing the survivors while increasing their numbers, ripping flesh from the human bodies in a bloody rage of….

_________________________________________________________________________

Master readers Livius Nedin and Robb Olson at Booked take a slight break from their usual format to bring us two podcasts I have failed to mention here until now. First, there’s an incredible interview with Donald Ray Pollock which you can listen to by clicking right here. Then, the guys join Amanda Gowin and Chris Deal for a review of Craig Wallwork’s forthcoming story “Revenge of The Zombie Pussy Eaters” which you can listen to by clicking right here. This podcast is extra special because it’s very funny, goes off on great tangents, and features soundbites by me. And if there’s one thing you need MORE of, it’s me, right?

Right?

Hello?

Was it something I said?