Sunday, 17 May 2015

T is for Terror


Terror, according to my dictionary is the feeling/emotion of great fear. I imagine it to be fear almost at the point of paralysis… A frightening place indeed. ..

 No one word sums up the aim of thriller/horror writing as this one word does. All horror stories aim to engender this feeling of fear in the reader and the most successful stories do just that.  
Fear is one of the strongest emotions and it creates a powerful response; it is a fail safe for humans to alert them to danger and ready their bodies for ‘fight, flight or freeze’. You can see where this comes from in prehistoric man, when faced with a threat they either had to run for their lives, stood and fought, or froze to make themselves invisible to predators (rather like rabbits in the headlights).

The hormone responsible for this mechanism is adrenalin and we produce it whenever we feel scared or afraid. It readies our muscles for action (wobbly legs and shaking), it revs up our heart pump (pounding pulse) and increases our breathing rate ready to supply extra oxygen to the large muscles of the legs. Our eyes open wide ready spot the danger and our brains and senses become extra sharp. Skin tightens and pales as blood is diverted away to the major muscles and our stomachs contract down so as to not interfere with the process. All major organs of survival go on high alert. Adrenalin can even make the bowel and bladder muscles relax involuntarily. Fear is so powerful that it can be totally disabling in the wrong circumstance i.e when the body is not under threat but nevertheless the emotion is running amok and irrational fears/terrors are born. (Terrified people are generally those who are so disabled by fear that they literally freeze.)

It is also true that people can become addicted to adrenalin. They love the ‘high’ it produces and search for ways to initiate this response, for example, putting one’s life at risk by participating in dangerous sports.

But for most people, the way they get their thrills is by watching a high action/scary/ movie or reading a book that’s full of jeopardy and danger. They can imagine themselves in the risky situation and that is enough to produce the adrenalin response. This is why people watch and read thrillers – that is the thrill – but in a safe way. In other words people want to be scared!! Then, when they come out of the reading experience, they can feel relief that what they read was not real and return to their everyday world feeling safe and secure.

The way I see it, the fiction writer’s (or thriller writer’s) job is to increase suspense and ratchet up the tension to produce that feeling of fear, usually empathising with the main character. So the reader is in a steady state of fight or flight waiting for…. Whatever! 

As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So, what do you think? Are you scared reading thrillers? Do you feel ‘terror’ or is your emotional response a little less scary?


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Premonitions and Prophecies.

Premonitions may be quite a useful tool in thriller writing. They can and do indicate future things (usually going horribly wrong) - and they are often arbiters of death, dying or some other catastrophic event.
Premonitions fascinate us because our understanding of how things can be foretold (or foreseen) without the aid of the usual human senses does not lie within the normal limits of our innate abilities. How can a person look into the future and – some would say - why would a person want to look into the future? Through the ages, from time immemorial, there are countless instances and stories about premonitions and seeing future events that could not possibly have been foreseen. Or so it seems…
I think most of us would agree that there are stories where we are stumped for answers and a quick straw poll of any largish group of people would, I am sure, come up with one or two stories that defy the laws of existence. And it all adds to the mystery…

One of the most famous people who claimed to foresee the future was, of course, Nostradamus. His writings and prophecies are with us still today – 500 years later. When I looked up his work and his life I found the following:
“Recent research suggests that much of Nostradamus’ prophetic work paraphrases collections of ancient ‘end of the world’ prophecies (mainly Bible-based), supplemented with references to historical events and anthologies of omen reports. He then projects those into the future in part with the aid of comparative horoscopy. Hence the many predictions involving ancient figures such as Sulla, Gaius Marius, and Nero, as well as his descriptions of "battles in the clouds" and "frogs falling from the sky."
But even when all the charlatans are taken out of the equations we still remain fascinated with the idea that some people can predict the future and some ordinary people can have ‘once in a lifetime’ premonitions ( especially about a loved one).

In my own writing (The Witcheye Gene) I used the concept for one of my characters but the visions only came about because of a particular familial characteristic of different colour eyes. And it was quite limited otherwise it can seem contrived and in the worst way seem like a ‘deus ex machina’ . But I did find it quite fascinating to research and include it in my plot. It actually ratcheted up the tension when one person could foresee something but no one else believed them.

So do you use the idea of premonitions in your writing?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Expecting the Unexpected.

One of my all time favourite programmes from the late 70’s was Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. The music for that series still lingers in my mind and although I can no longer remember much about the stories I do recall being fascinated by the unexpected endings. I spent most of the programme trying to second guess what the ending would be.
Roald Dahl

What a great writer Roald Dahl was – and not only of children’s stories. The unexpected twist ending is still something that totally captivates me when I read a new story. Even if the story itself has been a little humdrum – if there is a good twist ending that I never guessed, it will leave me with the belief that it was a great story and I will have a wondrous smile on my face. How could I not have guessed, I will say to myself… And sometimes I even go through the story to check where I missed the signpost. For there should always be a sign post of some description but it does not have to be (nor should it be) obvious.

Twist endings are difficult to pull off as so many writers either signpost too obviously or not at all. Then the reader feels cheated if it comes totally out of the blue – how could they have spotted it, they ask? That twist also needs to be believable according to the plot of the story. For instance you cannot have a character suddenly exhibiting a trait at the end of a story that was not there in the rest of the story. “Able to jump tall buildings and save the day” kind of thing…

I have tried to do twist endings in many of my own short stories and also tried it in a novel. It is infinitely more difficult in a novel but it is possible. I’m never too sure if it worked well in my own novel (The Witcheye Gene) but readers have told me they did not guess who the villain was until towards the end.  

Memo to self – read Dahl’s tales of the unexpected again!

Do you try to use twist endings? Are you good at disguising them?

Sunday, 15 March 2015

So where do the ideas come from?

It is a question I often get asked - as does every other writer. But for the writer of horror/supernatural stories the questioners are even more fascinated by how or why the ideas strike. The answer, of course is they come out of my imagination but they may have been sparked by something I have seen, heard or experienced. Or sometimes tiny nubs just appear from apparently nowhere… But I don’t believe they are apropos of nothing, they have just oozed up from my subconscious.

Perhaps I can give an example of how it worked for me with one project.

The original idea for my latest book “The Afterlife of Darkmares” came to me from apparently nothing?? I had been tossing around some occult-type romance ideas that might seem fairly believable when the thing suddenly presented itself. It was simply an image and I can still clearly remember the  ‘eureka’ feeling it gave me. The picture in my mind was of a 12 year old boy standing rigidly in a graveyard, hands by his sides, his glossy black hair - pageboy style -  gleaming in the sunlight.  His clothes were old fashioned – as if he’d stepped out of the pages of some 60’s magazine. He wore a buttoned up paisley shirt, a hand-knitted waistcoat and  smart black trousers.  There was something very off centre about him…

Where that image came from, I have no idea, but it must have arisen from something in my subconscious mind.. The scene was so vivid I used it as a jumping off point for my story. At that point I had no idea what my story would be about but I knew I had to use that scene somehow. The boy is called Grif and he is central to the story and the entire plot of the supernatural romantic thriller “The Afterlife of Darkmares.”
I then used free writing to further explore and develop the idea.  As I did this and the plot began to identify itself I became more and more excited and enthused by my slowly ripening story. For me this is the best part of writing a book. The creating of the story!!.
Eyam Church
These pictures are all from the real-life place that is the setting for the book and around which the plague village story is woven. 

The Plague cottages
The Celtic Cross

Cucklett Delf

So what is your favourite part of writing a story? Do you dream up ideas or characters first?

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Flawed Villain

 To say a villain in a thriller story is flawed is like saying coal is black! Of course a villain is flawed, I hear you say, otherwise he would be a pretty poor antagonist. A good villain has a personality that most of us would not aspire to as he may be capable of the most dastardly acts. I am however talking about a villain who may be flawed because he/she has some decent human traits that show us he isn’t totally bad. The only villain who could be said to be totally bad is the devil himself, I guess. Most others started out as innocent babies and children but maybe something happened to make them bad. Or maybe not – maybe they simply have more of the undesirable human traits in their genetic make up. Nasty traits do exist to some extent in all of us, but hopefully most people have control of those urges and anyway have more humanity and caring for fellow humans. 
How villainous a character is depends mostly on the type of story you are writing. If it is a love rival or a corporate executive he may not be so nasty in all areas of his life but on the other hand if it is a horror/supernatural villain he may have no redeeming features. For example a bad character may be wicked and malicious to people but may love animals! In this way he is a flawed character and not true to the caricature of evil which we may assume him to be. 
Always, when using villains, a suitable adversary/hero is necessary and it is the juxtaposition of their characters that allow the most conflict and tension in a story.  The hero who has faults is a much more interesting character than the perfect boring type of individual. I think we can relate better to  
him because he is flawed – as we all are too. Similarly, we all know people who we consider to be horrible individuals but we know (maybe deep down) they will have some redeeming characteristics too.
For me, giving my villains one redeeming human trait, amongst all the vicious, nasty ones, makes them much more interesting ( and indeed fun) and if their malevolent ways came about because of something that happened to them – well, it just makes them all the more intriguing. Not nice and not worth rooting for but maybe a little more human.

Do you give your villains redeeming traits?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Write like a film director?

One of the things I found hard to get to grips with when I first started writing thrillers was the idea of tension or conflict on almost every page. ‘What, every page,’ I asked myself? Surely not…

But then I realised that the kind of reader I was aiming for wanted and expected a thriller to be a fast-paced page turning epic that took them on a roller coaster of a ride until they came to the satisfying ending. Okay, perhaps not always that fast, but it is definitely a different kind of read from a literary, Jane Austen - type story.

One reason for this is that nowadays readers are also used to watching movies and TV that fast cut to the action and leave little in – between. When I am writing I visualise every scene as if I am watching a film and I cut in and out as if I’m a film director.

I am not saying that all types of fiction should be like that – far from it - but if you are going to go with a genre you’d better give it due thought. As to veer away from it, is bound to disappoint readers who expect a certain kind of read with a certain kind of genre.

Seeing my story as a film may not always work out well but it gives me a way forward, at least. I also try to infuse each scene with some degree of tension even if it is only a character’s inner thoughts which may be in turmoil. There are of course, other things that can add to tension such as setting, weather and bigger picture happenings (e.g. war, plague or world events).

Scene and chapter endings are also places where tension should be enough to ensure a reader continues to read - in other words, the cliff hanger ending. Not always easy, but one way is to leave a scene early in the middle of conflict (and sometimes switching to another point in the story) so that the reader must continue to read to find what happens.

All if, buts and maybe’s you say… But that’s how I do it…

So what about you? Do you cope well with tension and conflict in your writing?


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Target practise?

Target practise

One of the things I slavishly try to follow is word counts. I can no more give them up than I can just eat one small square of chocolate!
I set a target for the week and then for each day depending on what else may be required of me in terms of the rest of my life, and then I go for it! You’d think that would be great, eh? Not a bit of it. You see for me it’s all or nothing… If something gets in the way and I have less time, I will abandon the day. It’s a case of ‘have a chance of getting there or not bother at all’! Can’t be healthy can it? Once I start however it would have to be a pretty serious emergency for me to forgo my target and settle for less.
 In my defence, I am generally realistic with what I can achieve – I learnt a long time ago that not being realistic was a sure fire recipe for disaster and next to know words done at all!! My method does get me there though so I have learnt to trust my instincts and respect my need for targets.

I think it may be the ‘tick off’ bit of my psyche that controls this. I love’ to do’ lists and can’t help but experience a sense of achievement when I tick something off. The word count sheet is similar and I feel satisfied when I can tick off that I made my target. Mo matter if the actual words are total garbage!! As someone said, elsewhere, you can’t revise or edit something you’ve not actually put down on paper. Now that’s another story…

So do you make word count lists (or time spent lists) and then stick to them?