Having a hard time getting your story to the level that you want it to be at? Struggling to sell it or to get positive feedback? As writers, we often feel too strongly about some things and not strongly enough about others, so a fair amount of errors can be grouped under ‘over doing it’ or ‘ under doing it’.
Here are some of the common mistakes that writers make:
Over doing it:
Drama, drama, drama:
One of the keys to good fiction is keeping your characters believable. Having your characters react with a violent whirlwind of emotions to every event in your plot will be overkill. Frantic panic over missing a bus, violent outrage over being short-changed or a suicidal rant over spilt milk may have their place in some stories, but not in most. Having your characters react as normal people do will be enough for your readers.
In the beginning…
Going into long drawn-out descriptions of place and time can be difficult not to do, especially when your story is set in the past or the future. A story set in the year 2245 doesn’t need a summary of the world’s political history or your character’s ancestry. The same goes for one set in 1036 BC. A few simple bits of information, a date and some differing aspects mentioned are enough to get the reader’s mind going. Think about it, what type of world comes to mind when imagine the year 13 BC?
If you read through your work, especially if it is a longer piece, you may find that you have repeated yourself. A character’s wants, needs and motivations do not need to be retold every time they come into play. The time and setting do not need to be described and explained over again. Think of a story that you’ve read, how much of what you imagine is told to you? One or two descriptions may work fine, unless something changes in them.
We all love a memorable character now and then, one who is unique and flamboyant; who goes against the norm, but not all your characters can be this way. A reader often enjoys a story because they relate to the characters, and they relate to the characters because they find similarities between themselves and the character. Let’s face it, most of us are pretty ordinary, so when we read about a multi-billionaire losing his or her fortune, are we as sympathetic towards them as we would be towards a hardworking, average person like ourselves losing every cent?
While obscure details can sometimes be useful for adding depth to your descriptions, if they are irrelevant they will do more harm than good. Describing a character’s socks can be informative if it relates to the story (especially if the character is describing their own socks – it says a lot), describing them for the sake of filling up the pages wastes time, space and can bore, if not confuse, your reader.
We all fall into this trap every now and then, and perhaps we can be forgiven for doing so once or twice. More than that becomes embarrassing. The golden sunset, the dead of night, the racing heartbeat, all of these sound familiar for a very good reason: they’ve not only been used before, but they’ve been used too often! Make friends with your thesaurus, it’s more useful than you’d think.
Under doing it:
You won’t have much of a story if nothing happens. Starting off the action is as important as keeping it going, so make sure to pace your story well and to keep your characters on their toes. Also remember that things should happen for a reason, your character shouldn’t just up and join the circus without purpose or motivation.
Forgetting about your other characters
While a plot tends to centre on the protagonist, don’t neglect your other characters in terms of growth and change. New writers tend to focus too much on the protagonist and how they are affected by events, but how do these events affect your antagonist and secondary characters? How do changes in your protagonist influence the other characters and vice versa?
Lights, camera, action!
In an effort to tell the story as well as possible, we can lapse into a factual, lecturing tone where we describe events instead of writing them. Remember to set the scene, the mood, the emotions that are involved in your incidents so that they seem more real and less like a chapter from a textbook. It might help to think of your scene as part of a film: what you would blend into a film scene can be added into your written scene.
Too set in your ways?
It’s not often in life that people experience something and come through unscathed. Be it based on love, horror, drama, fear or action, any major incident will shape and change part of us. We grow and learn every step if the way, and so too should your characters. The ebb and flow of your plot should shape your characters like sand on a beach, gently or violently, but always constantly.
What is the point of your story? What is the meaning or message behind it? Are you telling a story for the sake of telling it, or is there something in it that the reader will take away with them once they have read your work? If there is, and there probably should be, then make sure this comes out subtly in your work.
Not enough planning
Before you sit down and start to write your story, do some planning. Work out the smaller details such as character motivations, plot structure and even do a little technical research before you begin. You may have the beginning and the end in mind, but what happens in between? Having a map makes a journey easier to complete, and every story you write is a journey of its own.
How well do you know your characters? Are they just there to advance your plot, or do they have a history, a meaning, a purpose? Getting to know your characters will help you to add depth and motivation to your characters. Writing a back story for your character will allow you to get to know some vital information about who they are, where there come from and thus why they do what they do.
Here are some exercises to help you get better acquainted with your characters:
Many people advise you to create a past for your character, but I suggest that you take it a step further and imagine that you are in an interview with them. Ask them where they came from, where were they born, what were there parents like, how did they do at school, etc. As you’re picturing the interview, think of how they are dressed, what they look like and how they act. By imagining their response you’ll gain information from both what they say and how they say it.
What’s in their…
Take an object such as a car, or a handbag, or a place such as their bedroom or office. What’s in it? If your character works in an office, then what does it look like? Is the room spotlessly tidy, organized chaos, or a just a mess? Are there old coffee cups lying around, or perhaps a bottle of gin hidden in the filing cabinet? What do they keep in their desk? Only work related items or perhaps a listening device to record conversations with clients? The tiniest detail can tell you volumes about their personality.
Design a CV or résumé for your character. What information would they put on it? Would they give references and contact numbers, or would they lie about their education and working experience? Is it handwritten, one page or ten pages? Do they make it look professional, or cover it with flamboyant borders and bright colors? Each option that your character chooses will reveal information to you much as a normal résumé will reveal information to a potential employer.
You don’t need to incorporate every aspect of your character’s back story into your plot. That much information would end up confusing and boring your reader. These exercises are designed to help you understand why your characters do what they do. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know a real person. Once you get to know bits of information about where they come from and how they got here, then you can begin to understand what drives them to do what they do and act the way they act. Understanding where your characters come from will increase your ability to explain to the reader what motivates and drives the characters, which in turn gives your readers a better ability to relate to your characters.
There’s nothing quite like a steaming pile of intestines plopping onto the pavement to give your readers a chill. When it comes to graphic details in fiction, the question that writers are faced with is this: when is gore appropriate?
It’s difficult to give you an exact formula for when, where and in what quantity you should let the blood soak through the pages, but I do have guidelines that will help you decide when spilling your characters guts is and isn’t appropriate.
Which is more effective, giving your reader a glimpse of a severed hand or an in-depth descriptions of the raw, ragged flesh, the gnarled tendons and splintered bones? If you have built up the tension and anticipation to a high degree, then a glimpse should be all it takes to get your reader’s heart racing, but if your character has merrily walked around a corner and found the bloodied stump by accident, then a graphic description helps to let the reality sink while they try to recognize it for what it is.
Brutal evisceration’s and rapid exsanguination’s can become exquisite images when well crafted by a writer’s words, but as with all good things, moderation is key. A narrative that depicts countless limbs flying through the air as the chainsaw wielding maniac hacks his way through page after page of screaming men and defenseless women, knee-deep in pools of blood and still beating hearts, splitting heads like melons and painting the walls interesting shades of crimson splattered will flecks of teeth…. well, you see the redundancy. I advise writers to conserve their use of detailed mutilations. Timing is delicate tool, learn to judge when to let the hammer fall so as to maximize its impact.
This is probably your best guideline for deciding on the level of gore to sprinkle in your story. The gothic, soft, psychological and supernatural sub-genres rely on atmosphere and characterization, where as the extreme, slasher and noir stories are geared for maximum impact. Think carefully about how you want your plot to come across. Do you want to plant a dark seed of an idea that ferments in the reader’s imagination, or leave a blood smeared image imprinted on their minds’ eyes?
Imagine yourself as a hunter. Which has more impact for you: machine gunning a herd of buffalo, or silently stalking a single deer until the time is right for that perfect kill-shot?
Shaun Hutson is an author that creates well crafted tales with intense death scenes. The deaths of his characters are all the more prolific because of his keen sense of timing. I recommend his books for those of you hungry writers out there looking for a new read.
Always remember to be more gentle with your readers then you are with your characters! Set the right mood and vibe before you slice and dice.
What better time of year for omens, portents, beliefs and superstitions to claw their way into our thoughts and actions than on Halloween? Why is it that on the day when we dress as the things we fear, the day when joke about death, witches, ghost and ghouls, we seem to forget about those superstitions that most of us can’t help but act on?
Halloween is the night when all that’s feared comes alive, so here’s a heads up for those of you who think that Halloween is risk free!
If you hear footsteps behind you, don’t look back as death may be stalking you.
If you wait at a crossroads and listen to the wind, it will tell you what will happen to you in the next twelve months.
A baby born on Halloween will be able to see ghosts and spirits.
By burying animal bones near a doorway you will prevent ghosts and evils spirits from entering your house.
Walking around your house counter-clockwise and backwards three times before sunset on Halloween will ward off evil.
Names are an important aspect of any character. They help us point out our characters as individuals, give them life and, if we so dream, make them memorable . We can use names to our advantage as they can convey ideas or meanings and, while there are never ‘bad’ names, there are poorly suited ones. The most common mistake in naming a character is choosing a name for the sake of it and not thinking about the consequences, meanings or associations.
Having Ben, Ken, Jen and Len all in one story leaves the reader confused and bored. Make sure that there are variations in your choice of names, not just in sound but in syllables. There are thousands of names to choose from, so don’t settle for the easiest or most common.
When it comes to writing horror, we are bound to come across an evil mastermind or two, and when we do, we hate to find them called ‘Doctor Doom’ or ‘The Evil One’ or even those delightful characters who are known by such painful titles as ‘The One Without a Name” or the “The One We Cannot Name”. Give your mad scientist or crazed biologist a believable name, something that makes them seem a little more real and thus a little more disconcerting for your reader.
This applies to our everyday, ‘normal’ characters as well. John Smith and Jane Doe…? Well, they speak for themselves. Put some effort into finding a decent name and surname. When creating a character, write a back story that mentions their parents and ask yourself what this character’s parents would have named them. Those who raise us play a part in shaping our personality. Think of Johnny Cash’s song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.
When it comes to monsters and creatures, creepies and crawlies, think outside the box. Instead of ‘the blob’, look up the translation in another language, it will mean the same thing but add a little air of mystery for those not in the know.
Changing the spelling of a name can work for or against you. If you change the spelling and manage to keep the right pronunciation, then this can add to your character’s unique identity. However, changing the spelling too much can leave the name open to mispronunciation which can affect the way your reader interprets it.
It is inevitable that great names in history come with certain connotations. Let’s take a prime example: Adolph Hitler. Already thoughts and ideas have come into your mind, most of them presumably negative. Be careful if you take inspiration from the names historical figures, both good and bad, as these will lead the reader to draw conclusions about your characters that have no place in your story. On the other hand, choosing a well-known name can enhance the image of your character, providing that he or she fits the general image.
A little research can go a long way towards authenticity. The popularity of names fluctuates year by year, and names that were common in the 1920’s were not as common in the 1980’s. If your character is 80 years old, do a quick search on the Internet and see what names were common back then. Little aspects such as these can add extra credibility and authenticity to you story.
Don’t be afraid to abbreviate your character’s name, or use their surname as their predominant form of reference. We all give nicknames, drop or add part of a name or (casually or formally) drop the first name completely in everyday life, so there’s no reason why your characters shouldn’t either. A nickname says a lot about the character who has it, and the one who gives it.
So what happens when you can’t find a name that seems right for your character? Don’t settle for just anything, do some looking around: names are everywhere. So where are some good places to find them?
– Fictional name generators (many are available if you do a quick Internet search)
– Baby name websites (these are useful and some offer statistics about popularity, origins and meaning)
– Watch movie credits
– Open a phone book.
– Take inspiration from history (Salem Witch Trials? Titanic?)
Never underestimate the power of a name. We can’t help but associate meanings and ideas to certain names and while we are not always conscious of this, we do it nonetheless. Giving a little extra thought when it comes to naming your characters means that you give your writing that little extra edge.
As writers, we all like to know that we’re headed in the right direction. Online writing communities are a great resource for aspiring writers to get feedback on their work.
Having family members or friends read your writing isn’t always helpful. Often people you know will praise your work, but how reliable is their opinion? Perhaps they don’t want to offend you, or maybe they haven’t read enough to be able to give a good critique. Either way, I find that having other writers read my work helps me to get good advice, they have a better idea of what to look for, what works and what doesn’t in the fiction that they’re reading.
Be it poetry, short stories, scripts or novels, these sites will help you to get objective opinions, tips and advice on your work.
This is my favorite writing community. The site works on a system of Gift Points (GP’s) that encourage writers review works. The more you review, the more GP’s you earn and the more GP’s you can offer to people who review your work. You can open a basic account for free or pay for upgraded features.
This site is aimed at horror, science-fiction and fantasy writers. Opening an account is free and easy, and you’re guaranteed to get critiques from like minded writers.
My Writers Circle
This is a great forum for all styles and genres. You’re able to get feedback on your writing, have questions answered and find job opportunities.
Another forum geared at general and genre specific writing. They have a selection of tools to help you with your writing such character generators, submission trackers and name creators.
With these online resources you’re sure to get useful feedback on your writing. Don’t forget that all these systems are based on everyone chipping in with the work load: the more you review the more your work will get reviewed. It’s not as bad as it sounds because learning to critique other writers’ work will give you a better perspective on your own.
Good writers read. Be it a timeless masterpiece or a trashy novel, every piece fiction has something to teach us. Below I’ve listed five examples of short stories that have something to teach every writer.
“The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson
Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a must read for any aspiring horror writer. Jackson’s power comes from her simple and subtle writing that leads to a brilliantly crafted ending. No supernatural elements here, just a look at the power of tradition in society.
“The Monkey’s Paw” – W. W. Jacobs
Jacobs’ story is a classic that will never lose its impact on first time readers. He weaves a twisted tale around a simple, foreign object and leaves a humble family to cope with the consequences. Everything comes at a price.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This short story is a great example of how fragile the human mind is. Gilman’s use of diary entries creates an intimate and disturbing read as we are shown how quickly a person can descend into madness when faced with a simple fixation
“Green Tea” – Sheridan Le Fanu
Le Fanu is known for mixing the natural with supernatural, and this story is no exception. Is the protagonist suffering from delusions, or are there more sinister elements at work to torture this man.
“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad” – M. R. James
James is at his best with this ghost story. He mixes in a little humor but that does little to deter the ready from the creepy effect of his narrative, resulting in one of the finest examples of his work.
These texts can be found at:
What is more terrifying than being alone? Isolation is an intense feeling: complete and utter abandonment, no one to turn to, no one to ask for help. That’s why it is often used in horror fiction, both in the literal and metaphorical sense.
As a writer, isolating your character or characters can lead to an increase in tension. Let’s say that two couples get together and go on vacation. A is married to B, and C to D but A is sleeping with C who is also sleeping with B. D finds outs and goes nuts. If the happy couples’ revelations take places in a crowded hotel, there are too many complicating factors and intervening forces. Put them on a yacht out in the ocean, or a snowed-in winter log cabin and watch how the tempers flare when there’s nowhere to go. Interesting situation with great possibilities.
Michael Chrichton’s novel ” Sphere” is a great example of how isolation can impact a group of people. Without wanting to give away the plot, a group of researchers are trapped in a special habitat miles under the ocean. They are cut off from outside assistance and as the action increases, so does the tension, because they have nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help.
A notable short story about a character in complete isolation is Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” in which a single character survives the sinking of a cruise ship only to be left on a tiny island with only a logbook, a knife and a smuggled load of heroine. This story makes for an interesting read as it explores the question of what one would do to survive.
“Event Horizon” is a particularly disturbing film revolving around a salvage crew trapped on a spaceship. Once again, it is the isolation that plays a crucial role in creating devastating events.
So what is it about isolation that gets to us? Perhaps its linked to our instinctive feeling that there is safety in numbers, or that two heads are better than one. When your characters are isolated, they have no one to reach out and all the decisions (and resulting consequences) rest on them.
An individual that has been isolated for extended periods of time can experience feelings of depression, anxiety, dislocation, sensory illusions and loss of time. Some say isolation can lead to madness. In groups, the dynamics change and so does the ‘normal’ social order.
In what ways can isolation be useful in fiction?
– it stops your characters from getting external help.
– it heightens their stress levels.
– it increases each character’s internal conflict.
– it forces decision making.
– it forces cooperation and rivalry.
We forget how much a situation can change we are alone, especially as a group. Bare this in mind when writing a horror story…
The horror genre is one of the most difficult genres to write in. This is because the story has more to do with the way it’s told than the story itself. A good romance or drama can have a great plot with average writing, but a good horror story has to have good writing in order for it to succeed. So how do you write a good horror story? Here are some tips from an avid horror fan:
What scares you?
One of the best ways to give your work more impact is to write about something that scares you. Be it the monster in the closet, the feeling of someone else in the room, or your neighbor’s vacuum cleaner that just doesn’t feel right, if you are freaked out then you can transfer that feeling into your character and thus into your reader.
Where do you get scared?
Settings are often underrated, but with a genre that thrives on atmosphere, they shouldn’t be neglected. The cliché of graveyards and abandoned houses on a stormy night have been overused, so think of a place that makes you feel uneasy. It could be a children’s playground after dark, the desolate street corner in the middle of the day when everyone is at work or your normal looking basement that just doesn’t feel right. Regardless of what your story is about, remember to take advantage of your settings to emphasize the mood or to create a sense of unease or dislocation.
Would you do that?
When the crazed killer is chasing the young teenage cheerleader through her house, would she really run straight past the front door and up the stairs to the second floor (like we’ve seen in so many teen slasher movies), or would she bolt through that door and search for help instead? Ask yourself what you would do in that situation and let your answer depict the characters actions. Character’s actions should seem like the most likely choice for that person to make and not like an action chosen merely to advance the plot.
Got a case of that Writers Itch?
Have you felt the need to write a specific story but stopped because you’ve felt it’s all been done before? Don’t let that stop you from trying your hand at the haunted house story; give it your own unique touch by writing it with your own characters, your own ghosts and most importantly your own words. Because that’s what we writers do: we take a plot, an idea or a person and we make it our own.
For me, the key to a good horror story is elegance. The finely woven tale of suspense and tension, mixing the known with the unknown, is far more terrifying than an axe wielding psycho who slashes his way through the plot and characters. Subtly often has more of an impact than the in-your-face blood and guts style, so be cunning and you will catch your reader off guard.
Ultimately, horror comes down to finding the right combination of plot, atmosphere and character. What scares your reader should terrify your character because if your character isn’t scared, your readers won’t be either. And remember this valuable piece of advice: when it comes to horror, it’s not the story that makes it good but the way that it’s told.