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Simple Horror Plots, Part 1: That One Thing We Don’t Talk About

For some reason, nailing down horror plots is harder for me than mystery plots, so this is even more tentative than usual.

  1. There is a problem.
  2. The backstory* is so epic that it dominates the present or real story.
  3. Wait wait this problem comes from the epic backstory that we never talk about and didn’t learn the real lesson from.
  5. If we talk about it, it might go okay; if not, kablooey.

This is a lot of Stephen King.  The ShiningBag of Bones, that kind of thing.  Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell.  We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.

Mysteries have frame stories, too, that center around a crime in the past that was never resolved.  I see a lot of overlapping.  But I think the main thing that makes it horror here (plotwise) is that the thing Must Not Be Spoken About, where the mystery aspect seems higher if the thing is All Full of Dead Ends.


*Which might be plural.



The Secret of Writing a Series

So let’s say you have a series of books, movies, TV episodes, TV seasons, etc.  Any given series of storytelling.  Doesn’t have to be linear in time.  Doesn’t even have to be about the same characters (a la romances about a number of sisters, etc.)  With or without an overarching plot.  Could just be “monster of the week.”

What’s the secret of having a good series?  All other things being equal?

Having the setting be the same but different.

Let’s look at Harry Potter as one example:

  • Book 1, Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone: Explore Hogwarts.
  • Book 2, Chamber of Secrets: Explore the dark/forbidden side of Hogwarts.
  • Book 3, Prisoner of Azkaban: How the wizarding world interacts with muggles.
  • Book 4, Goblet of Fire: The wizarding world is truly a world now, although it mostly just comes to visit.
  • Book 5, Order of the Phoenix:  That strange country, the past, which would like to repeat itself.
  • Book 6, Half-Blood Prince: How the bad guys see all of this.
  • Book 7, Deathly Hallows: Isolated from the castle/Final battle at the castle.

All of the books except the first half of Book 7 center around Hogwarts and its environs; none of the books are about the same parts/aspects/perspectives on Hogwarts.  And each of the plots influences/is influenced by the aspect of the Hogwarts setting that is invoked.

Take a look at other series that you like.  Not only are the settings probably not exactly the same, but the plots also vary a bit based on that aspect of the setting.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 7: The Frame

Okay, the frame as a narrative device.  Most writers have at least heard of it.  There’s a story within a story.  But let’s look at this from a mystery perspective:

  • A crime happens or is discovered (in the case of a long-past crime).
  • The main action of illustrating the crime happens on another level, for example, the past or a fictional story (even if the crime happens in the “present” frame of the overall story).
  • The crime is not resolved in the other level of the story, regardless of where it occurs.
  • An action must be taken in the “present” for the crime to be resolved–the truth brought to light, the crime solved/resolved, or even hiding the crime entirely.

This is stuff like PossessionThe Arabian Nights (a crime story rather than a mystery per se, really), Heart of Darkness, Wuthering Heights (there’s a lot of “he stopped loving her today” sensationalist fiction in this vein, of course), BaudolinoA Study in Scarlet, A Devil in Velvet, and Shutter Island.  I would say that A Daughter of Time doesn’t fit this, because the sections of the past never really take over the narrative.


To Be Read, 2018: Personal Lists

I’m always looking for new books to read, while building up impossible lists of books to read.  So I’m wiping out the various wishlists (mostly) and gathering them here, while ruthlessly cutting them down.

Soon, I’ll post the list of recommended reading I got lately, from other people.



Recommended Reading for 2018

I asked for recommended reading for books written since 2000.  (I’ve been reading a lot of best-of lists, which tend to be 20+ years behind the times.)

Here what I got.  I marked the racy romances in case you’re around THOSE kind of people, the ones who disapprove of things as a hobby.



Let me know if you have more 🙂

Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books of All Time: The End of a Reading List

So it’s official:  I’ve finished Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books of All Time, from beginning to end.  It’s been about three years, although I didn’t start out focusing on this one; I’ve been working on several horror lists with MB Partlow and Shannon Lawrence. The Nightmare Magainze’s Top 100 is another, which is done, and up next is Shortlist’s 30 Scariest Books Ever Written.  Shannon’s original post tracking the project is here.  (She’s doing the best job of keeping track of things; also, we rarely agree on anything, which makes this even cooler.  MB and I tend to see things slightly more eye-to-eye, although I do differ with her strongly on atmosphere.)*

I’m tracking my end of things on Goodreads; my reviews are here.  If I had read the book and reviewed it on Goodreads already, I didn’t reread it, but if I’d read it before 2010 (my first year on GR), I reread it.

I liked most of the books on this list.  It might be easier to list the ones I didn’t like (there certainly were fewer of them).  I rated 22 of 50 as five-star.  But in the interests of “bah! forget that,” instead, here are my top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Turn of the Screw, Henry James.
  • The Woman in Black, Susan Hill.
  • The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty.
  • Let the Right One In, John Ajdvide Lindqvist.
  • The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson.
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding.
  • The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum (which, I don’t know, isn’t really my favorite so much as the most legitimately horrific/scary)
  • 1984, George Orwell.
  • Piercing, Ryu Murakami.
  • Dawn, Octavia Butler.

I spent the most time with The Woman in Black, going fairly in depth to study it (and finding some Really Weird Stuff as I did), but I’m also working on The Turn of the Screw.  I don’t think those are necessarily the best books of the lot, but the ones whose plots and settings most appealed to me.

The one that’s most under-read from the list is, IMO, Daniel Auerbach’s Penpal, although I will grant you that it leans more literary than some readers will like, and it isn’t perfect.

What I liked more about this list than the Nightmare list?  Fewer eyerolls due to extreme sexism (not the curators, but the books themselves, which lean heavily 80s horror).  What I liked less about this list?  At first I was pleased that that the list drew from a broad spectrum across genres, with a lot of literary showings that don’t get listed as horror at first glance (for example, American Psycho or Blood Meridian).  But then…I got tired of it.  Some of the books seemed to have been picked just because they were the mostest that could be found, like The Painted Bird or The Wasp Factory, and I found myself dreading the last few books, going, “What fresh Hell will they drag me through, just because they can?”  The end of this list was far more exhausting to push through than the Nightmare list because of that, I think.

Next up for this project is the Shortlist 30 Scariest Books, or maybe the Kim Newman/Stephen Jones Top 100 Horror list.  But, being slightly burned out at this point, I’m going to finish up the Top 100 Crime Novels list first instead.

I do like me some lists.

Simple Mystery Plots Part 6: The Grid

I was reading a P.D. James novel and realized I hadn’t added this most basic plot of all.  It honestly feels more like a technique than a plot.

  1. A crime happens.
  2. The solver either mentally or literally lists the suspects, their motives, their methods, and their opportunities to commit the crime, as if on one of those teeny checklists from the Clue game.
  3. When only one possible suspect remains, the crime is solved!
  4. The solver laboriously explains their methods in case the reader missed a clue.

A lot of mysteries tap into this, but don’t rely solely on it.  A note: some of the better mystery-writers will add a technique of corroboration.  If multiple people don’t confirm an alibi, then it can almost be assumed to be a lie.


Simple Mystery Plots, Part 5: The Real Story

I found another one!  (Two, actually; another one tomorrow.)

The mystery revolves around the fact that there are multiple versions of the truth (or conjectures of the truth), which are structured as separate chapters/sections of the book.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. Various people try to solve the crime, or are called upon to give their version of the crime.
  3. The ending may not see any resolution into the crime, but into the nature of truth itself.  (But often the crime is solved.)
  4. Often the verrrry ending wraps up with an open-ended question of some sort, even if the crime is resolved.

This would be things like RashomonThe Poisoned Chocolates Case, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, or even things where things are pretty straightforward but multiple POVs chime in to move the story forward, a la The Woman in White or Laura by Vera Caspary.

Copywriting Technique: What Do Readers Want When They Want Your Book

I’ve been struggling with this one, which seems stupid.  I mean, isn’t this something that all writers should just know?  There was a reason you wrote the book in the first place, wasn’t there?  And yet:

  • I regularly go through phases of, “Everything I write is terrible.”
  • Therefore, why would anyone want to read the book?
  • The advice I’ve read about writing summaries/synopses of one’s book is geared toward presenting one’s plot in an entertaining way.  Plot.  Plot plot plot.
  • But nobody gives a damn about the plot, unless it’s some huge twist story, and then–irony of all ironies–you have to convince the reader to read your book without describing the big selling point.
  • Isn’t that how you tell people about movies and books you like?  Tell them the plot?  Why isn’t that working as a copywriting technique?

Over the last few days, I posted about atmosphere.  I was mostly joking, but I think atmosphere is actually the answer.  People want to escape; part of what a fiction copywriter wants to do, I think, is show them where they’ll be escaping to.  And one of the easiest ways to do that is to describe the atmosphere.

I’ll be trying that next.  Reporting back soon.





Atmosphere Part 3: Atmosphere Is Also Posters

So atmosphere is weather, and even background sounds.  But what do you do for atmosphere if you’re indoors?  Well, first, you can make the scene atmospheric by adding fog.  No reason not to add fog to any setting, indoors or out.

Or you can make it dark, so that most of the details are obscured and hard to see.  There’s some atmosphere for you!  (I checked out Alien, which was the #2 atmospheric movie on my list, and it was both dark and foggy.)

But what do you do if your scene has to be both indoors and brightly lit?

Hang up some posters.

Like the lip-syncing scene in Pretty in Pink.  Or, magnificently, the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Okay, it doesn’t have to be posters.  But put something on the walls–unless the indoors has to be deliberately blank, as in Let the Right One In, in order to contrast with the (highly atmospheric) world outside.  Or make the walls themselves interesting, as in The Shining.



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