A Writer’s Aside: Horror, Perspective and Not Cocking It Up

Hello dear reader! I write to you from my death-bed today. Well, not literally. I’m just very sick. I don’t have Sherlock or my TARDIS back (PC and phone respectively), but I thought I’d upload some thoughts anyways, seeing as I’ll probably be sleeping through tomorrow. Today, we’re going to be talking about writing, so, if you’re not interested, turn away ye mortal beings. Hide thine eyes. Shit doth meetest the fan. Not really, but I thought I’d get your attention before I make three more up-coming announcements!

-I’ll be starting a new series I’m calling  The Humble Bundle Blitz! Look for it; I miiiiight be giving away some free games. Shh.

-I’m going to be picking out the games to go on my voting list for the next Letsplay in the series running parallel to Trivial Drunk Gaming, because I’d like something of me playing games while sober. You know, just so there’s more evidence than Star Fox. To help with that, either leave a comment or send me a tweet with a horror-themed game that you’d like to see me play. I’ll compile a short list of games I can record with my current tech and off we’ll go, next week, with the voting process.

-I’m thinking of starting a run of horror movie reviews, because I love them. It’ll be a summer thing, but I think we could have some fun with it. If that sounds cool, then drop off a horror movie favorite and I’ll give it a watch. It’s nice to live right beside an occult movie store. It’ll help expand my horizons and let me test the waters for this concept.

Alright, onwards! Unfortunately, again, I didn’t get to spot-light anything this week, because my laptop is a pain to read from, so I just did a lot of novel reading.

Speaking of novels, it’s probably not surprising that I read a lot, but it might shock you to learn that I do a fair bit of story writing. It doesn’t? Yeah, that was a bad call on my part, but not entirely unrelated. You see, what I did there was exposition. Air-quotes: Thanks, right? The reason I bring it up is because, today, we’re going to take a quick look at exposition, tense and perspective. These are little decisions that will rain fire and havoc on anything you try to write, especially horror.

The reason I say “especially horror” a lot is because it’s a tricky, deceptive muse. It’s heavily dependent on what your audience knows, what they don’t know, what they will imagine, what they can’t imagine, how they experience, what they experience, and why. There’s more to it, obviously, but those are the biggest hidden questions that writers need to answer. Horror experiences must be carefully cultivated; they’re incredibly easy things to mess up. One inch over the line can bring you from “extreme” to “campy” in no time. It’ll never be the same thing that ruins the experience, either. Then again, as writers, we can’t control everything. So, we write for specific audiences, to specific audiences, for ourselves, to ourselves, you get the pattern. In a way, horror stories are a lot like sex. They both rely on a certain degree of emotional stimulation. Maintaining those emotional arousal patterns can be key to a successful “story.” They can even follow similar narrative excitation curves. You can start out with a small amount of arousal or stimulation and build to a climax. You can build to one and pull back just before the edge (fake-out scares in movies are the worst!). You can get to a certain spot and just maintain an edge for the entire experience, the tension and agonizing denial being almost as effective as the pay-off. You can do multiple iterations of different story curves within the same session. Is this metaphor getting too elaborate? Tortured, even?

Whips and pains aside, it does the job of illustrating how important it is to cull and cultivate an experience with specificity. A dog staring at you from the edge of the bed is disconcerting, but a live chicken might be a deal-breaker, unless you prepare the ground-work beforehand. With that in mind, we can see the place of exposition. A lot of movies front-load their exposition, because they don’t have as much space as a novel to carefully slide it in. However, as we’re aware, you can tell a lot from a glance, a picture or a demeanor. Picture, thousand typewriter monkeys, etc. We’re not here to do a comparison but to look at what they have in common. That, of course, is sometimes doing it badly. Front-loading narrative exposition may be necessary, lazy, sloppy, whatever (pick the one that applies to a certain movie), but there’s a lot of information that can be told to us through action or omitted entirely. If you want an example, then watch That-Scifi-guy’s review of Zombie Apocalypse. There’s a ton of stuff they could have shown us while entertaining us; this goes double for Johnny Mnemonic. The opening to Dawn of the Dead (2004) is a good example of weaving a ton of exposition into a brief montage of shots that tell us an entire story in an entertaining way. More to the point, when it comes to horror, you want your audience interpreting and  experiencing as much as possible in a movie. Being visceral is one of a movie’s most commanding strengths. By the same token, you wouldn’t write the same story you’d show.

Look at Lovecraft or Stephen King. Most of the horror in their books come from cerebral ideas or vivid imagery. So, when you’re telling a story or explaining a scene, you want enough information but not too much. Text stories are mentally animated by the reader, so they’ll often have pre-baked concepts that you can take advantage of. That means that you can provide a minimum of detail and still get a good scene out of it. You don’t want to overload your reader with details; it will pull them out of imagining the situation and make them focus on the background. (If you need to do this to highlight an area, then don’t just mention it specifically.) For instance…

…echoed steps preceded him into the grey expanse of the warehouse. The sound struck out over the silent pool of blood. The candles. The contraption that held her aloft. It wasn’t until his footsteps quietly slinked back that Harry got a look at the scene. By then, it was too late…

It’s pretty pulpy, but it was written on the spot and illustrates my point. Words, like grey, echoed, and silent, paint the warehouse. Whether there are boxes at the far end or not is immaterial, unless it’s a plot-point or a red herring. Even additional information can be good, but it must have a purpose. Or, striking purpose out in favor of flavor, it must not be detrimental to the story. You see, the more time you spend on a mental area or idea, the more important it will seem to the story or the reader. The more it will be animated and gain salience. You can write whole pages describing a field if you’re Tolkien, and it might help expand the world, but it may also bog down your story. Don’t faff around too much. By the same Tolkien, you do need to faff around sometimes.

Sometimes, you want to pull attention to something, so you over-describe it a bit more than you would otherwise. Sometimes, you want to pull attention away from something else, so you add in red herrings. Doing this is surgery, though. You don’t want to end up with an obvious one. We’ve all watched movies with obvious-trolls or even just scooby-doo episodes. The reverse is almost as bad, though. Opting for no detail, nor red-herrings, has what I call the scooby-doo effect. Scooby put a lot of effort into cramming a mystery into 20 minutes, but it also gave birth to the Obvious-troll (mentioned above, it’s just the guy who obviously didn’t do it but is made to seem suspicious) and the obvious-perpetrator. As an artifact of their formula and their lack of time, Scooby could only introduce a few characters, so the laundry-list of perpetrators was pretty small. There was almost no guess-work. Still, that’s better than the other cardinal sin…

“It was Gerald all along!” …. “Who?”

Sometimes, you just need to put a face to a crime or atrocity. Sometimes, you don’t, but that’s different story types, and we’re off the beaten path. No, we’re talking about red-herrings and alternate narratives. Alternate narratives are my favorite way to insert a red-herring into a story, because they allow for a minimum of information with maximum red-herring effect. Basically, you build your central story, then you add in just enough details to make another narrative possible. It makes all the information you provide pull double-duty, because, if you pull it off, it can work for either case. You can even use alternative narrative to give away information you want to keep secret, but you can do it in such a way as to support the alternative narrative, thereby hiding your original purpose. Below did this very well. For a more immediate example, the candles from my story blurb can be used to provide occult over-tones. But, what if you found out that the power was out? What if you found out that they cut the power themselves? What if the place housed candles? Flashlights and lanterns? What did the contraption do, anyways? How you answer those questions, and in what order, will create another story entirely. It’s a way to provide information but keep your audience guessing. I have a lot more I want to say, but it’ll have to wait, because we’re talking about tense now.

Past tense, present tense and future tense, that is. A lot of writers seem to have trouble with this; I know I do. So, I use a handy set of questions to help me get started on what I should use… What’s my framing device? When is this occurring? How do I want my audience to imagine this? When I imagine it, how is it going down in my head?… It’s a short list, but the answers to these questions are crucial. If your framing device is someone’s memory, for instance, then you might consider past-tense to reinforce that and keep the excitational narrative in the moment. Or, if you want it to seem that the person is re-living the memory, and make things in the memory more immediate for your reader, then you can use present tense. If you want to have a person remembering something, but standing at the beginning of events from their memory and looking forward, then you can use future-tense. The language will act as metaphorical representations of your device and, thus, your story. It will reinforce itself. The next two questions relate to the first. Obviously, you’ll probably have to flip tenses a few times as you move around in time and perspective, but there’s probably a general line to your story that will require a commitment to one of those tenses for general information. The last two questions are also related. In many ways, you are your own audience when you write. It helps to get up and come back to work at a later time, because it gives you a fresh perspective. It also encourages a look from both a production (first pass) and a reception (revision) stand-point. If you can see the scene while you’re writing it, but you can’t imagine it from the information when you’re reading it, then you’ll need some revision. A common problem writers run in to is that they have trouble separating what they know from what their audience knows. So, something that can seem really obvious to the writers is still too obscure for the reader, because the reader lacks the relevant knowledge to make the connections necessary to illuminate the writer’s idea.

Of course, I’ve just described writing with an alternative narrative, so that whole thing pulled double-duty, too.

I’m running out of steam here. Tooooo much coughing. So, fiiinally, let’s talk perspective. Namely, First, second and third-person perspectives. Part of this feeds back into the tense questions; first-person perspective works with present-tense to provide a really immediate experience. This shit is happening now. First-person perspective also tells a much more personal story, because you can provide the reasoned thought and emotions behind actions. You can also close off other characters by limiting exposure to them and interjecting first-person impressions and thoughts about them. You can muddy the reader’s own perspective with that of the character’s perspective. Second-person is a bit trickier. It’s not without its uses. It allows you to speak directly to the reader and tell them about their actions. It also allows for an interesting level of reader-character insertion. Third person comes in omniscient and limited-omniscient forms. Limited-omniscient is useful for telling stories with a lot of jumping around, but it allows you to keep some things secret by limiting how much you can examine any one character’s motivations, thoughts or actions. Omniscient is a scary beast. It allows for the full exploration of any and all characters, but the possibility is also the obligation. Leaving out specific people or events from the gaze of the reader is telling, but, if it’s done properly, you’ll never know it happened at all. You can also muddy the waters with alternative perspectives on events and leave out an individual for red-herring purposes.

As you can probably tell, I’m treating these different portions of a narrative as gating mechanisms for information and as mechanical representations of the ideas they’re attempting to convey (ie. immediacy for immediate, jarring, in-progress events). They’re more than either of those things, but they need to be looked at that way for part of the writing process. They also deserve special attention from horror writers, because the world of a good horror story is a strictly-controlled, well-represented place. Remember, what your audience knows is their perspective. You want to pull them in. Incongruencies, stock characters, obvious plot-lines, poor exposition and jarring transitions in tense will damage all the work you’ve done in crafting your story. So, answer these questions with care. They seem really obvious, but, if you get that work out of the way, then you can enjoy putting the rest of the blocks snuggly in place.:..’..:.::

Cute Cat With Glasses

Pretentious writer cat thanks you for your time! I’ll get back to some of this stuff later, when I’m not a walking zombie with a keyboard. Take care! See you on the other side.

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