How to write horror #2: Tools and tips for story development

“Once upon a time, a man planted what he thought was a sunflower seed, but it grew into a carrot. The end.”

This little tale encapsulates the key thing I always try to do when developing a story: stay flexible and embrace change.

Story development is the journey from the moment you have your first spark of an idea (see also my article on inspiration) to the moment you start a first draft. For some writers this journey is very short – they start to write with only a vague idea of how things might unfold. But for me, and many other writers, it will mean A LOT of planning, thinking, discussing and note writing. And during this, concepts may change a great deal.

I made a folder full of notes before I started writing

I made a folder full of notes before I started writing

So adaptability is key, but what else can help you negotiate what can seem a daunting process? What techniques can you use? This series of short blogs will look at the stages I went through in developing my second novel, The Shade Clan, and also highlight what I think are important related tips that will help you to get to the point where you are ready to start writing.

Firstly we look at…

1. Story development notes

Here’s the very first thing I wrote down about what eventually became The Shade Clan:

Isolated area, long cut-off. Island or woodland with no access. Small group of characters who deliberately trespass in areas like this. What’s in this place? A strange beast? Shape shifters? The group go there and are warned off by a mysterious man. 

In my story development notes I started to grow this seed of an idea into a story. I thought about:

  • how the plot might develop – the ‘what happens and why’ of the story; I thought from the start about twists, surprises, and how to keep the reader in suspense;
  • who the characters are, how they interact, their motivations; with supernatural/fantasy characters, I defined what they were, what they could and couldn’t do, how they lived;
  • the background to the story – what has led to the point where it starts – creating mystery and things to reveal to the reader;
  • pivotal events in the narrative and how to make them tense or scary;
  • themes I wanted to explore – things I wanted to express through the events of the story.

Some of these notes were very short. I made a brief note about why my characters first come to the area where the action takes place: “What first brings them to the area is standing stones.” Others were a page or two long – I wrote at length about how and why the main antagonist in the book comes into the story, what his motivations are, how he infiltrates the group of main characters.

A good technique for me was to ask myself questions and write down my thoughts. A particularly crucial question for The Shade Clan was “What is the shape changers’ relationship to humans?” Another, on a similar topic, simply asked, “Are they evil?”

I also tried giving myself a topic heading and writing a short piece about it. I have notebook pages headed “The Clans and what they do” and on the theme of “Light and darkness”.

The purpose of these notes was not just so that I didn’t forget my ideas – the process of writing sparked new ones and fuelled creativity.

I’ve kept notebooks of ideas for a long time, so I also looked back through the old ones, hoping to find things I could bring into my new project.

As I wrote about characters, locations and events I created the beginnings of the world of my story, but was careful not to get too wrapped up in it. I tried not to forget about the most important person in this – the reader! This brings me to my first tip…

TIP 1: From the start, put yourself in the reader’s shoes and think about how you will entertain, scare, surprise and intrigue them. How will you give them reason to keep turning pages? What will be hidden from the reader but hinted at? Will they know things that the characters don’t know?

Once I’d been making notes for a while, my story started to take shape and I felt ready to write a rough plot outline. That’s what the next post in this series discusses. 

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‘The Shade Clan’ Halloween Giveaway

Win a free paperback of my latest supernatural horror novel The Shade Clan.

The Shade Clan

Anything could be happening in that post-industrial wilderness reclaimed by nature, the place they know as The Shade. When Tom and his friends discover the vast, overgrown quarry, they know it’s the perfect location to learn to survive in the wild. But something else has been drawn there. Something nightmarish, unspeakable. Through a chance discovery, they step into a world where great darkness dwells behind the brightest of lights. 

This giveaway is now closed and a winner drawn at random.

Congratulations Theresa Jeffries – a paperback copy of The Shade Clan will be on its way to you soon!

HOW TO WRITE HORROR #1 – Eight ways you can encourage inspiration

Inspiration: an elusive creature, glimpsed often fleetingly, usually when you least expect it.

Needless to say, inspiration is not something that can be forced. But there are things you can do to increase your chances of seeing this mysterious beast. And they will work for all kinds of fiction, not just horror.

It’s probably quite an individual thing – most writers will have their own methods and habits they use to prompt ideas. Here are some of mine, in no particular order – I hope they prove useful.

1. Go walking

I’m a great believer in walking in the landscape as an essential human function. As hunter gatherers, it’s what we’ve evolved to do. For me, walking puts my brain into a productive mode and creates head-space.

You don’t need to have amazing countryside available – very little horror fiction is set in pleasant surroundings anyway! The places that inspired my latest novel, The Shade Clan, were abandoned industrial sites. And there’s plenty of horror set in very ordinary, suburban locations.

If there are atmospheric places that get your juices flowing, all well and good. If not, just walk anywhere! I think the action of walking is as important as the setting. Eliminate distractions – turn your ‘phone off, leave your tech devices at home and go on your own (but stay safe!).

'flooding'

Take time to walk somewhere away from distractions

2. Be a people watcher

Generally speaking, horror fiction is plot-driven rather than character-driven, but human stories and interactions are still at the heart of what really engages readers (just look at the characters created by greats like Stephen King). It’s vital to observe people at every opportunity if your characters are to have depth and credibility.

So much inspiration can come from an overheard conversation or an incident you witness. Watch, listen, absorb; in cafes, on trains, in the street, everywhere. Become a casual student of human behaviour. And it’s not just about intriguing passers-by – the people in your life will say and do things that spark ideas. Don’t be afraid to take a somewhat detached approach in gathering this material; writers often adopt the role of observers rather than participants.

3. Daydream

It may be easier said than done, but making time to let your mind free-wheel is important. If your head is full of work and other responsibilities during every waking minute, ideas are less likely to surface.

Indeed, the period just after waking, or while lying in bed before sleep, can be excellent times to let your mind wander – use that limbo between sleep and full consciousness, when your brain is in an altered state.

Spend 15 minutes sitting somewhere peaceful, or take the train instead of driving and do some good old-fashioned staring out of the window. Don’t force it – just get into the habit of letting your mind drift. The role of the subconscious is more important in horror writing than perhaps any other genre.

4. Embrace the new

Routine is the enemy of inspiration. New places and experiences, keeping your everyday life as fresh as possible, will help to energise your writer’s mind.

Of course, the reality of most people’s lives necessitates some routine, but you’ll be surprised how much difference something as simple as driving a different route home or visiting somewhere new on your day off can make.

It’s not about expensive trips to exotic locations: I would put money on there being interesting places, parks, historic sites, whole towns, within 30 miles of your house that you’ve never been to. And neither is it about ‘bucket list’ style experiences – just say yes to new people and things, however ordinary. Maybe they will never feature in your writing, but the new input will fuel ideas.

5. Read

It sounds obvious but it’s impossible to overstate the importance of reading. Other writers’ work is one of the most important sources of inspiration there is – it’s the reason most of us started writing in the first place!

And don’t just read within the horror genre, read around it and well outside it. Develop broad tastes. Read the classics – up your game by consuming the best literature mankind has produced! It has so much to teach you about plot development, suspense, character and use of language.

castle of otranto

Read the classics of the genre and of others

6. Consume media and culture

As well as reading fiction, I like to take in other media as I go about my day. Unlike reading, this is not a focused activity – I dip into things, flick through a newspaper, surf TV channels, listen to news radio in the car, look at stuff via links on social media. Often I just make a note of what interests me and forget about it. I can always look into it further later.

When doing this, I think it’s vital to put your prejudices to one side. I often pick up on a degree of intellectual snobbery when I hear writers talking about their inspirations and I despair at it. You can’t afford to dismiss anything as invalid! Low-brow, high-brow – no-one says you have to like it, but it’s all potential material.

7. Explore the edges

This one is sort of an add-on to all of the above, and one of the most important things to consider when writing horror.

It’s about stepping outside the ordinary and the safe, exploring people, places and subjects at the edges of society and what it accepts. Horror, by definition, explores what is uncomfortable, unsettling, what is hidden and denied.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is with this famous quote – Orson Welles as Harry Lime at the end of The Third Man:

 “…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

8. Record it

Finally, you need to make sure that not a single idea, no matter how ill-formed and unconnected to anything it may seem, gets away from you. Write it down!! You may think you’ll remember it but, if you’re anything like me, you won’t!

Carry a notebook, and if you don’t have it with you, use any means – a scrap of paper, a text to yourself, whatever – to capture that thought. Make sure you have a pad and pen next to your bed for those dropping-off-to-sleep ideas.

Just the habit of writing things down can spark more ideas and make your brain more fertile. When you’ve half-filled a notebook with scribbled fragments and bits of old envelope, the chances are you will have the seeds of a story in there. Which brings us to the topic we’ll explore next time – story development.

 

THE SHADE CLAN – available on Amazon Kindle

Buy The Shade Clan for £0.99p now

Buy The Shade Clan for $1.54 now

shadeclancover


 

 

 

 

 


Man dug the quarry. Nature reclaimed it. Then something else moved in…

Anything could be happening in that place, in that post-industrial wilderness reclaimed by nature; the place they know as The Shade.

When Tom and his friends discover the vast, overgrown quarry, they know it’s the perfect location to learn to survive in the wild. But something else has been drawn there. Something nightmarish, unspeakable.

Through a chance discovery, they step into a world existing alongside the world they know, where great darkness dwells behind the brightest of lights.

What is living in that forgotten hole in the ground, and how is Aleksander, the charismatic stranger who comes into their lives, connected to what they’ve encountered?

Enthralled and afraid, Tom, Katya, Cal and Annabelle are soon asking themselves if anyone can be trusted, if anything is at it seems.

Read a taster

THE SHADE CLAN – coming soon

Anything could be happening in that place. In that post-industrial wilderness reclaimed by nature; the place they know as The Shade.

When Tom and his friends discover the vast, overgrown quarry, they know it’s the perfect location for them to set up their camp and learn to survive in the wild. But something else has been drawn there. Something nightmarish, unspeakable.

culand pit panorama tint 2

Through a chance discovery, they step into a world existing alongside the world they know, where great darkness dwells behind the brightest of lights.

What is living in that forgotten hole in the ground, and how is Aleksander, the charismatic stranger who comes into their lives, connected to what they’ve encountered?

Enthralled and afraid, Tom, Cal, Annabelle and Katya are soon asking themselves if anyone can be trusted, if anything is at it seems.

‘Lost Boy, Lost Girl’ by Peter Straub – REVIEW

Gripped by the intense opening of this novel, I was anticipating something like a reprise of Straub’s uber-eerie classic, ‘Ghost Story’.

‘Lost Boy, Lost Girl’ turned out not to be that – either in theme or in quality. It’s not a great Peter Straub novel, but it is a good one – and, as his fans will know, that’s enough to set it head and shoulders above most novels in this genre.

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Long-standing Straub fans will also be intrigued by the appearance in this book of Tom Pasmore, a character from Straub’s ‘Mystery’, and by the author’s wholesale relocation of streets and places from the island of Mill Walk, that is the setting for ‘Mystery’, to the town of Millhaven in this novel. What is he up to? And what is this obsession with place names that start with Mill, anyway?

But to the story…It centres on Tim Underhill, a writer, and his teenage nephew, Mark, who has become obsessed with the house of a serial killer following the mysterious suicide of his mother. Events unfold through parallel narratives (one in the first person, from the point of view of Tim, the other written in the third person, focusing on Mark.) These threads interweave cleverly, although there is a drop in pace whenever the action switches to the misadventures of Mark and his best friend, Jimbo.

These twin points of view reveal the emotional complexities and deeply buried secrets revolving around the abandoned house with great detail and intensity, but one is left feeling that perhaps it has taken a lot of pages to account for relatively few actual events.

However, there is no doubting this Straub fella has a way with words, and there are some very creepy moments – like the reveal of why the rooms in the killer’s house look smaller than they should…

Good work from one of modern horror’s undoubted greats!