Saturday, 28 April 2012

Tales of the Unexpected - The X-Factor

U - Unexpected
"The author O. Henry taught me about the value of the unexpected. He once wrote about the noise of flowers and the smell of birds - the birds were chickens and the flowers dried sunflowers rattling against a wall."
Chuck Jones
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.
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?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Fight, Flight or Freeze!

T – 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?
"Any horror element is as much psychological as special effects."    Christopher Eccleston

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Secrets, Lies and Masking Tape...



S – Secrets 

"We dance around in a ring and suppose but the secret sits in the middle and knows." Robert Frost 1874 - 1963 

The subject of secrets and undisclosed tales is, I find, quite fascinating. The fact that some of us would go to great lengths to discover what someone else’s ‘secret’ is simply says that we hate to be kept in the dark. For there is something about the human psyche that makes people want to make a secret un-secret!
Whenever anyone says something is a secret there is a deep longing- on the part of most of us – to know what that something is. It is an almost irrepressible need to know – even when it is nothing to do with us. I suppose it must be something to do with the nosey nature of human beings… But the fact remains that calling something ‘secret’ gives it an allure all its own.
That is why many stories that centre around hitherto untold ‘secrets’ can be so successful. I once read an article in a writing magazine that stated that if you had the word secret in your title or back cover blurb you would be bound to get more sales! I don’t know if that’s true but I do know that many blurbs are written that hint at secrets waiting to be discovered in a book’s pages.  Readers love a good tale with a ‘secret’ expertly handled and told in a convincing way. And there is nothing more satisfying than finally discovering (often at the end of a good story) what that secret is.
A secret can also be a good tool to use to maintain suspense – especially if it’s hinted at the beginning but not stated – it leads to guessing games on the part of the reader. So if for no other reason the reader must read on to find out if they are right!  Or even when the reader knows the secret but the characters do not.
Secrets can be the main thread of a story or a titillating subplot but whichever way they intrigue and fascinate which is exactly what you need to keep readers turning pages!
Do you use secrets in your stories? Are they the main plot or a sublplot?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Dead or Alive? Re-birth of the soul


R - Reincarnation

"I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, that the living spring from the dead, and that the souls of the dead are in existence."
- Socrates

Reincarnation actually means re-birth of the soul in successive bodies but people often use the word when they mean a re-launching of something in a different way.
In my kind of thriller writing, it is of course a very interesting concept that allows much artistic license. No one knows what happens to us after death so no one can actually deny the existence of re-incarnation. Along with tales of the afterlife, zombies, heaven and hell and many other similar concepts, the notion of returning to this life (in some form or another) is a very strong belief to dismiss. I guess this is why it fascinates so many of us.
It is not a new idea either as Ancient civilisations believed in the idea too. Perhaps it is the arrogance (or the fear) that this life could be all there is that drives some to believe so fervently. Most religions have a central tenet that there is life after death – although not all believe in a life reborn here on earth.  But the Hindu religion, especially, has embraced the idea of life after death since time immemorial.
Along with the idea of simply being re-born is the debate of who or what one would come back as! Some believe that a good life would be rewarded and one would come back as something better (whatever that means) or for those who have done bad deeds they would come back as lowly creatures! I would guess that many do not subscribe to this but it is certainly a fun notion to play around with in devising stories.
Whatever your belief, it is an intriguing subject to deal with and it most definitely appeals to those who write and read supernatural stories.
So what would you come back as, if you had a choice? Do you believe in reincarnation? Would you use these kinds of beliefs in your own writing?

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Quakes, Quacks and Queries

Q – Quakes, Quacks and Queries…
So, here I am at my favourite letter – Q.
What can I do with that, I ask myself. Well, first there is the word quack - an interesting noun - as in my kind of thriller writing there is often a quack (fraudster or charlatan) somewhere along the way. The world of the paranormal is littered with them. Introducing a character who is a fraud can enliven a plot and raise the tension – especially if the reader knows he/she is a fraud but the other characters do not. Fabulous! In one of my stories the fraud actually turns out to be the good guy too!
Quake is also a useful word too – as in quake with anger or fear. But there is also the larger than life plot that might well centre around an actual earthquake. This is the kind of natural disaster that often makes for gripping thrillers. Most of us have experienced mild earthquakes but to be in a severe one must be the most frightening thing imaginable.
Lastly my offering today is also about queries. Yes, that most scary of writerly things… I don’t know why most writers are so worried about composing queries. I suppose it is because they are our shop front, window display of what we are about and as such have the kind of importance attached that undoubtedly put the fear of God into most of us. A query is also rich with rules which can be difficult to stick to but without which - if we choose to ignore the said rules - we know our work will not even be read! 
Happy Easter, one and all!