What’s wrong with my story?

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?

Again?
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.

Peacocks

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?

Yadda yadda 

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.

Clichés

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:

And now? 

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.

But why?

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.

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Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from? This question haunts every writer at some stage or another in their career, and never so intensely as when they can’t think of anything to write! People often say that ideas are everywhere, which is great when you’ve got some, but when you don’t, that answer only compounds your frustration.

Horror writers face an even more difficult task. Not only do we need inspiration for ideas, but we need those ideas to contain a seed of a fear that we can nourish and grow. Here is a list of some places where you can find ideas, but remember, it’s not what you read or hear, rather it’s case of how you receive the information and use it to your advantage.

The News:

Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or go online. The news is a great place for finding our genre specific ideas. I’m not talking about front page headlines but those little articles nestled away in the middle. They seem a little bizarre, a little off kilter, and sometimes we wonder how they even ended up making the news, but if you sit down and think about it, there’s a story waiting in the wings. Ask yourself what made the publisher decide to place that article, and you’ll realize that it has more to do with the bizarre, macabre or downright strange aspects of the story than it has to do with its value as an informative news article. Everyone loves a little snippet of mystery now and then.

For example, I once read an article about a 71-year-old woman who went a bit nuts and started smashing her car into others. Seems straightforward enough: she must be senile. Then I started thinking about what could really have taken place, and some interesting plot ideas came to mind. Find the article at:

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Gran-takes-out-nine-cars-20060315-2

Conversations:

If you listen with your writers’ ear, you’ll hear a tale or two worth writing about. We often write off gossip and urban legends as not worth listening to, but who knows where those stories can take you? That friend of yours who told you a story about his cousin who had an uncle who knew a guy who found a woman dead in her apartment and her cats and been eating her body to stay alive may be doing more than trying to gross you out. He could be giving you the basis of for a great story. How did she die? Who was she? And what was with all those cats?

Photos:

To some of you it will be odd to think that as a writer I have started carrying a camera around. To others it will make perfect sense. You never know what you’ll see when you leave your house, and having a camera to snap a quick scene will help you savor that information for later. Take a look at the picture above: it seems a little arbitrary, but if you take a closer look you’ll see the back of an ambulance, a couple of men standing by a lake looking bewildered. What’s going on that picture? A body found, a person lost or drowned? Perhaps they were called out to a scene or saw something from a distance but when they got there whatever they saw had gone. The options are many and intriguing.

If you don’t have a camera, then keep your eye open for pictures in magazines, books or online. If something catches your eye, then save it. You never know where your imagination will take you when let it.

What If?

Apart from being an amusing game to play, it’s a great resource for ideas. You could be at work, at school, in the shower or in a restaurant, any place at all will do. The trick is to ask yourself ‘what if…’ You’re driving in your car, it’s late at night and the road is quiet. What if you: hit someone (or something), see a body in the road, a shadow in your rearview mirror, bright lights in the sky or feel a hand grip your shoulder even though you’re alone in the car? What if your car breaks down, you get a flat tire, your phone rings, your vision starts to blur? The options are endless. Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you…

The truth is: ideas are everywhere. They lurk inside everyday events, they’re rustling between the lines of news reports and they blatantly strut around in broad daylight. It’s up to you as a writer to take a different look at your surroundings and find the fear that’s nestled in the familiar settings around you.

On Getting to Know Your Characters


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:

Back-story:

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.

Résumé:

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.

Gore, guts and gizzards: when to turn your insides out

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.

Duration:
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.

Frequency:
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.

Sub-genre:
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.

Sense and Sensibility

As writers we sometimes neglect our senses. We spend countless hours absorbed in the two-dimensional worlds of pen and paper, keyboard and monitor, often to the point that we forget the different sensations that the world holds. Our five senses help us to function in the world, but some take precedence over others. Sight and sound are our predominant means of experiencing the world around us, and so we transfer these onto our characters. But what of taste, touch and smell?

The feel of soft velvet, the taste of your favorite chocolate or the smell of a new car, all of these invoke different emotions in different people. As do the taste of rancid orange juice, the smell of a burst drain pipe and the feel or centipede crawling up your leg.They trigger thoughts, memories, emotions and reactions.

Think of fear.

It is strong, primal emotion that affects our bodies as much as our minds. When someone is afraid, their hearts begin to race, they sweat, their hands tremble, they struggle to swallow and breathe. If we step it up a notch, take it to the level of terror, then what happens? On an emotional level they feel helpless, impotent, angry, confused or even a strong sense of disorientation and dissociation from events. On the physical side, their mouth dries up, leaving a metallic or bitter taste, they perspire, they can feel their bowels loosen and smell the warm pee that’s soaking their underwear. Let’s face it, fear isn’t pretty. Don’t be afraid to mention the gritty, unpleasant details when your character has to deal with it.

From a different perspective, consider what your character is confronted with, what is causing them to be terrified. As a writer, you’ll have the image in your mind: a rotting corpse, a Lovecraftian being with flailing tentacles, a crazed killer or a child’s toy wielding a blood smeared knife. Whatever it may be, you can be certain that if that situation were real, smells, tastes and textures would flood the scene. Give your reader a whiff of the decomposing corpse, a taste of blood or make them feel the tightness in their chest as your character struggles to breathe.

Not all senses that invoke fear need to be ‘bad’. That charming little girl next door who has just dismembered your character’s cat could smell of baby powder and candyfloss. The familiar touch of a husband’s caress feels great for his wife, until she discovers the truth about him (serial killer? pedophile? victim of the body snatchers?). The first bite into a fresh apple, the sweet and tart flavors mingling on their tongue, mixing in their mouth as the chew and swallow, only to see half a worm wiggling at the core? The horror of a scene can be intensified by contrasting the every day, familiar and enjoyable with the true nature of the situation.

So go on, give your reader the full sensory experience…

Tips on Writing Horror

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.

 

Be elegant:

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.