Monday, 30 January 2012

Shadows, Guns and Signalling.

Casting Shadows...
F - Foreshadowing
To foreshadow, according to my dictionary, means showing or suggesting an event beforehand. It is an interesting word to use in thriller writing as it can be used as much or as little as you like. It can be a very slight hint or could be a full scale seeing the future in some form or another.
In terms of gendering suspense, I think it is invaluable. It signifies to the reader that a particular thing is important and it raises tension so that the reader keeps the pages turning. I think foreshadowing is used to some degree or another in all thrillers. It can be as subtle as an atmosphere or as obvious as a piece of information or an object of interest.
As writers we may shorten sentences and paragraphs, speed up speech and ratchet up the action to indicate that things are rising to a climax or something important is about to happen.  In films, we are all familiar with the notion of background music telegraphing turning an ordinary event into something sinister. This too is foreshadowing.
The main thing about foreshadowing is that we use it early in a piece of fiction and then deliver on the promise later in the story. It is a skill that takes a degree of practise, I feel, in order for it to not appear obvious. The reader should have an ‘ah ah!’ moment later in the story and it should come as a bit of a surprise - if it’s done correctly. But one that when they look back, they see it was correctly done and they were not hoodwinked. The other important thing about foreshadowing is that the writer must not renege on the promise. As has been said elsewhere, 'If you show a gun at the beginning of your story it better go off by the end!'
Another tool to make fiction more enjoyable? I think so…
So, do you use foreshadowing in your writing? Do you find it easy?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Black Death and Other Nasties

E – Epidemic

Natural disasters and man-made ones make for brilliant thriller reads, I find. The age-old ‘race against time’ to save innocent lives and – occasionally - the whole human race is the ultimate in ‘edge of the seat’ drama if done well.
Some of the best stories I have come across in the genre of thrillers, involve the use of the word ‘epidemic’. To most people this word is scary as it is the world of science gone wrong and nasty things happening to unsuspecting people. But I suspect the scary part is more about our lack of control over such tiny (usually unseen) microorganisms that can and do kill us indiscriminately.
We can easily imagine catching a nasty disease and the thought that something can spread like wildfire and wipe out an entire population – well, we know in our heart of hearts that it could just happen…
To add to the tension and drama there is usually a time element to these stories and so it is not so difficult to build in a page turning tension. A sceptic (often a politician) who does not take the threat seriously is generally built in to provide the opposition to the main character and - voila – a readymade thriller plot!
I don’t mean to sound as if this is so easy but there is definitely a theme to these stories, and we all know it, but it doesn’t seem to stop readers wanting these kinds of stories.
I love these books and I have used the motif in my own novels a little. My latest thriller (unpublished as yet) does have a plot strand where a type of plague is released into a small community.
Have you considered using an epidemic ( or the threat of one) to heighten tension and create extra conflict? Have you read a great book/story using an epidemic?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Better the Devil you know?

D – Devil
"By the pricking of my thumbs, something evil this way comes" Shakespeare.
In the Manichean struggle the Devil is probably the ultimate villain! No small wonder then that many supernatural stories feature this deity as a consummate character. Whether you believe in the existence of a god or his opposite, most people are fascinated by the idea of a being who has all the most undesirable characteristics of human frailty. In many cultures that being is the Devil.
The Devil (or Satan), in Christian culture is always supposedly the fallen angel, Lucifer. But according to the bible the devil has many names (including Amadeus and Mephistopheles) and all associated with much evil doing. “What is thy name? My name is Legion, for we are many.” Mark 5:9
‘The Satan’ first appears in the bible as a messenger sent by God. He was used as a catalyst in the story of Job where he acted as a tempter and accuser. In the story of Adam and Eve he is described as a ‘powerful wicked angel’ who led the plot against humankind by tempting Eve. For this act God threw him and his henchmen out of heaven and thus he became known as the Devil who rules the kingdom of darkness and subsumes all evil powers. He tempts people to evil doings and is also known as ‘The Great Deceptor’ for appearing disguised as an angel of light.
 Despite the murky origins of this so-called fallen angel we do also find the devil appearing in other religions too (in Islam he is known as Shaitan). Whatever the truth (or your own beliefs), everyone understands the significance of good versus evil and the Devil (Satan or whatever) has come to be known as the personification of evil in this world.
So, what a fabulous plot device to use in a story? The ultimate antagonist. And because none of the origins or the stories around the entity can be verified you can use him howsoever you wish! Such brilliant fodder for creating conflict and suspense… And a great adversary for the hero/heroine of a supernatural thriller story…
Have you used the Devil in your stories? Do you think it is still acceptable in this day and age of technology to use an ancient religious deity?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

ESP - what can we see?

C - Clairvoyance
In supernatural thrillers and horror stories one of the parapsychologies will usually figure somewhere along the way.  Clairvoyance is one of these.The dictionary says clairvoyance is ‘the ability to perceive things that are usually beyond the range of normal human senses’.  But I think many people associate it with the power to ‘see’ into the future.
Second sight or ESP is one area of clairvoyance and it can be a particularly helpful plot device; remembering, of course, that we are talking about fiction and a willingness on the part of a reader to suspend disbelief.
The idea of being able to ‘see’ (or sense) something that is not within the bounds of normal is not a new one. It has been used from the early beginnings of the written word and tales from the classics and mythology are steeped in them.
The main areas of second sight seem to be Remote Viewing, where a person can ‘see’ something that is happening a long way away, Precognition, where a person can ‘see’ and foretell something that is about to happen, and Visions where a person simply ‘sees’ something (it may only be a flash image) but has no idea if it’s from the future, past or present.
Telepathy, premonition and telekinesis are also closely related to second sight.
Of course the scientific community does not accept any of this stuff as it requires proof that is just not available. The various researchers into the area are of the view that most of it is fraud, self-delusion and guesswork. But that doesn’t stop the believers and it certainly doesn’t stop the notion of second sight being fertile grounds for the imagination in fiction writing.
I used the notion myself in my latest book 'The Witcheye Gene'. (Now available on Amazon kindle) The main protagonist had a latent hereditary gift of second sight.

One does not have to believe these things to enjoy a good story that uses any these ideas. If you asked the population in general how many believed in the paranormal you would get a much lower number than those who read the fiction books and watch the films. This is what suspension of disbelief is all about; in that, just for the period that you are immersed in a good story, you are willing to step into a universe where all things are possible. This is the nub of all good plots and fiction in general. How else would we enjoy Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings?
The other interesting thing for me is that if you have one character who believes in the paranormal and one that doesn’t then that sets the story up for even more conflict and tension, quite naturally without having to work at it.
What do you think? If you make a world ‘real’ enough for the reader, can you suspend disbelief?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Such Powerful Connotations...

What a simple but emotive word ‘black’ is…
Because of my favoured writing genre I associate it with the supernatural, the ‘Dark Arts’ and all things evil. But of course, first and foremost, it is simply the word we use to describe an absence of colour.
Oh, how the English language loves a simple word that can be twisted this way and that. I looked in the dictionary expecting to find the straightforward definition but no…. There are many more definitions - more than I could cope with. From being banned or boycotted to villainous, funereal and sable.
And then there are the add ons… Blackmail, blacklist, blackout, black death, black widow, black market, blackboard, blackleg etc. The list is endless but one thing that stood out for me is that many of these terms and words have such negative associations.  No wonder that the black community has for centuries hated the word. Although nowadays, the word is embraced and proudly used by those whose ancestry is African or African American, one can only wonder at the origin of the word. An absence of light and colour and the night sky must have been pretty scary to ancient peoples.
I defy anyone who writes supernatural thrillers to not use the word somewhere in their Manuscript. It is a word that conjures up all that one would wish when used in association with this type of writing. In any one picture or description, if it is meant to be scary or eerie, the colour black is always used. In my book "The Witcheye Gene" the antagonist has an aura which is totally black and I don't think I had to spell it out to the reader that this signified he was evil. Especially when others' auras were a variety of colours.
Such an interesting word with such powerful connotations...
For the rest, I leave you to ponder…
Do you use the word black often (apart from describing a colour) and in what circumstances?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

ABC of Thriller Writing...


I thought it might be fun, this year, to organise my blog around an alphabetised compendium of thriller writing-related subjects.
So, today’s word topic is Arachnid.
You might feel that this is a strange word topic for a thriller writer but the word popped into my head and on thinking it through I realised there are many occasions when spiders are used in thrillers. Not least the fact that many people are afraid of spiders so in terms of engendering basic fear they can and do make people shudder and do all manner of crazy things.
Ordinary household spiders, for me, are totally creepy and scary – especially when they scuttle so fast that you can rarely see where they go to. It is that fear of not knowing where they are that adds to the fear dimension even when they have disappeared.
Then of course, spiders and spider webs are such an iconic part of ghostly, paranormal stories too. What would a haunted house be without the spider webs lurking in every corner? And even walking into a web in the pitch dark can be scary – especially when it sticks to your face!
Many a story and horror film have featured spiders much more prominently – as the main focus of the tale. Witness ‘Arachnophobia’ and similar stories.
Spiders are such strange creatures, that the idea of large and deadly versions of them is anathema to most of us. Although, we do have spiders that have the ability to kill…  May be a Modus Operandi for a murder mystery thriller or has that been done to death – so to speak…
So are you scared of spiders? Do you think fear of spiders could be the basis of a psychological thriller?

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Be Afraid - be Very Afraid...

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”.

This was said by F D Roosevelt and it is never a truer saying.
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 are born.
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 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 the fear?

Monday, 2 January 2012

Cook Book Look At Genre

Recipe for a good tale?
I was recently asked, by a well-meaning friend, what kind of stories I wrote.
“Thrillers,” I answered.
“Oh, not romance then,” the friend said, plainly dissapointed.
“Oh no, there is romance in my stories as well,” I responded.
It got me thinking about the question of genres and the categories we all use.
So, exactly what kind of writer am I, I ask myself? I call myself a thriller writer – mainly of the supernatural genre. But when I think hard about categories, I realise my novels may well feel like everything but the kitchen sink added in!
You see, I think of a plot as a cooking recipe. For a good story I mix together certain ideas and form them into the basic story-line for what I need. I then add in extra ingredients to, hopefully, make my story stand out.  Not to overdo it, of course, otherwise the main story line can become obscured.
To that end, when I examine my plots, I find they are usually Manichean (good against evil) and often the main character is unwilling at first but then is in a desperate race to get something. My recipe usually includes the raising of stakes for the main character and rising tension throughout the story. Rather like baking a cake, methinks? Well there you go, more cooking analogies!
I find I nearly always add a love interest, (the genre of romance?) a ‘what if’ element (maybe it could be horror?), a ‘whodunit’ bit (mystery story) and usually some kind of race against time (a thriller caper). And then again, I also try to add subplots that intertwine with the main story. My recent book also had a time-slip element to it so I could call it historical too.
Maybe other writers don’t have to fight with themselves when they realise they want to add further spice to their stories but I always do. I would happily mix genres even more if I let my muse loose for long enough…  Like a good cake recipe, you need to know when the mixture is just right. Sometimes less is more…
So I reign myself in and try to stick to the main category I enjoy – supernatural thriller writing. But it doesn’t stop me adding a bit of spice here and there…
Do you tend to mix things up or are you totally faithful to your own genre?