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.