Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”
In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.
So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?
If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.
- You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense. A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
- A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
- A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.
Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:
- The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
- A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
- Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.
One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:
- Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
- The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
- The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.
The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.
Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
The Path to Old Talbot, by Jordan Elizabeth appears on the surface to be a novel about a doorway leading to another time, and it is that. But it is also a story about how a young girl and her mother cope with her father’s mental illness. It’s a tough issue. What does a teen do when their parent has mental problems. It may be something that isn’t talked about, so the child or young adult must deal with it internally, not expressing their feelings outwardly. Our heroine, Charity, expresses her inner thoughts and feelings to the reader, even when they are thoughts and feelings she can’t express to friends or family, giving readers a unique insider’s view of a tough love scenario. It is a difficult issue and I give Jordan Elizabeth kudos for tackling it in a realistic, but sensitive manner.
When Charity and her mother discover a door to the past in their new home, they can hardly believe it, but they quickly take advantage of to make brief escapes from their own reality. But with each visit, it gets harder for Charity to leave her new found friends from the past to their fates, as she digs up the past in the present. But can the past really be changed or is it preordained?
The Path to Old Talbot is a well written and engaging story, perfect for today’s YA readers, who may be dealing with similar issues in their own lives, (mental illness, not time travel). I give it four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Perils for Portents, by Diana Benedict is a well crafted story and a truly enjoyable read. Taking place in an era when women had to struggle to be taken seriously, young Francie Wolcott proves a heroine who young women today can look up to in a story of mystery and adventure.
When their parents die, Francie and her brother, Rooney, are left to make their own way in the world. Francie uses her resources, combined with Rooney’s ingenuity to travel across the country by unconventional means, to their uncle and grandmother in San Francisco. On the journey, the automaton Rooney designed is possessed by a ghost, whose fortunes are right on the mark. When she reveals a murder the circus owner was involved with, it puts Francie on his radar as a liability. Once they’ve reached their family, Rooney settles in well, while Francie entertains plans to travel the world with the fortune telling automaton. But her grandmother has other plans for her, as she puts Francie on display for all eligible suitors, regardless of how repulsive Francie finds them. Besides thwarting her grandmother, Francie must also evade the circus owner, who is set on her demise, and she proves herself up to the task.
Perils for Portents is a delightful historic YA novel, with elements of adventure and romance. It is well written and entertaining. I give it four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
While Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle is spending time with my alpha reader, I’ve been busy working on Book 2: In the Beginning. Now I know it seems strange name for a second book, but for this series, it’s actually quite fitting.
You see, Book 1 covers the time just before and after the Atlans arrival on Earth in prehistoric times, which result in a great battle between the Atlans and the monstrous creatures created by the angry Tiamat, Oldest of Old Ones. It is the story of how the Atlans came to be on Earth.
Book 2, on the other hand, takes place during Earth’s earliest civilizations. It explores Biblical times and even before, as well as visiting ancient Egypt and Minoan cultures. It looks at the beginning of time, hence the title, In the Beginning.
That said, I’ve finished the first draft for Book 2, and started on revisions. I guess maybe my writing process is a little weird. At Western, while earning my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, we talked a lot about our writing processes, and while everyone’s processes were different, I never found anyone whose process was like mine.
My first drafts are pretty rough, consisting mostly of the basic plotline. The basics of what happens in each chapter, so the way the story moves forward can be seen. Once, I have that down, I can go back and revise, adding description and action that helps the story move in each chapter, sharpening the image, hopefully, for readers. That’s where I am in the revision process now.
Before I send it off to my alpha readers, I’ll do another run through to check for repetition, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and eliminate unnecessary words. This is the pass that tightens up my writing to make it the best it can be before going to the alpha readers have a go at it.
Once I have it back with their comments, I may do up to three or four more passes, before I feel it’s ready to submit to publishers or agents. If all goes well, I will get Book 1 back from my alpha reader, which in this case may be a beta reader since I made revisions to the completed work after sending it out without raising any interest, about the time I have the final draft of Book 2 ready to send out for her scrutiny.
I think the main problem, possibly with both books right now, is a lack of emotion from my characters, which could result in a lack of emotional investment from readers. Identifying it as such is good, because if readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t continue reading. The challenge will be finding a way to fix it, so my readers will keep turning the pages. Fortunately, I found some great ideas for showing my characters’ emotions in a post titled Emotion vs. Feeling by David Cobett on Writer Unboxed.
The story is there. Now I just need to breathe life into it. That’s what writers do.
Like this post? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted.
As almost every writer knows, anywhere you go to discuss writing will always have someone proclaiming their tried and true rules for writing that you MUST follow. Post on any writing forum whether it be for screenwriting or fiction and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of eager “expert” or “professional” writers ready to tell you exactly which rules matter and which are hogwash. Yes, many of these writers have published novels or sold scripts and are professionals in the industry, but does that mean their rules are THE rules to follow?
Let me say that again – Absolutely not. Just because someone has sold a script or published a novel or piece of writing doesn’t mean that they will be able to give you rules to writing that will be guaranteed to work on your story. If you put every writer who ever sold something in a room and asked them to come up with a master list of writing rules it’d be impossible. There’d be factions who think you can never write in present tense and others who think a description of the weather should never start a novel.
There’d be groups who think the epitome of literary or cinematic genius is one specific piece of work, and others who think that same work is a crock of shit. If the people who are actually selling works of writing cannot agree on what makes good writing, and which writing rules are always true, then how on earth can a newbie writer even dream of making it in the industry, let alone be brave enough to even try to put words on the page?
Ultimately, all of this boils down to one single fact about writing: There are hundreds of rules for writing, but one of those rules is that there are no rules. Now before you dip out of this article, because that’s a useless piece of advice in the previous sentence, give me a chance to elaborate.
Writing is a subjective thing. Every story is going to require following a different mix of rules to make it work. That’s why whenever I write a post about the “rules” of writing, I try to explain which situations the rule applies to, and where it might not apply. Also, every writer is going to have different opinions about what makes a good story, and every publisher/studio/audience is going to have a different opinion about what they find marketable and worth buying. If this is true, which based on the evidence presented through comparing a wide range of published and produced pieces of writing it is, then the one and only real rule for writing is that you have to know the “What” and the “Why” of your story.
Essentially, knowing the What’s and Why’s of your story is all about researching the genre or style of writing you want to write by studying the existing works in that genre, and being conscious about your story and your writing choices so that you can answer the following questions on each project you work on:
- What writing “rules” do you have to follow for this particular story? In general, writing rules are not actually rules at all, but rather they’re typical or common guidelines of storytelling that work or don’t work based on previously existing works. So knowing what “rules” you have to follow just means you know which “rules” actually apply to what you’re writing, and which don’t. If you’ve done your due diligence and prep work before writing by studying other works that are similar to what you want to write, then you should have a general idea of what the common rules of that style or genre of story are, and which might apply to your story.
- Why are you following or ignoring these rules? Every time someone tells you a “rule” for writing, it’s important to understand why the rule exists, and where it applies. For your own work, always be able to justify why you’re breaking one set of rules, and why you’re following other rules. You may not have to follow all the “rules” in your writing, but people come up with these various rules for a reason, so understanding why they exist will help you understand why you need to follow certain ones and ignore others in your work.
- What is your setting, characters, plot, etc.? If you don’t know this when you’re writing, then your writing will probably be all over the place. Some people can free-write and discover a lot of these details as they go, but it is almost universally true that having these elements solidly in mind before writing will make your writing stronger.
- Why are you choosing these characters, this setting, that plot, etc.? Ultimately, the core of writing is to make deliberate choices and to be able to justify those choices as being ones that serve the story. Every character, setting, plot device, and elements of your story down to word choice can have a major impact on your writing. The more deliberate and conscious you can be in your choices, the more your writing should come together to tell a successful story.
As you can see, this one and only writing rule really boils down to being conscious about each choice you make in your writing and constantly asking yourself why whenever you are presented with a “rule” that someone thinks is universally true. All of these “rules” people come up with regarding writing are the results of people looking for the magic formula to a guaranteed sale on a piece of work, and they find it by looking for common elements across sold pieces of writing. While it is often true that these elements do exist, there are also just as many pieces of writing out there that break these trends.
Every story is its own thing and has its own identity, and I’m a firm believer that if you focus on serving the story rather than trying to force it to fit pre-existing rules or expectations, then your story will be better for it. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to sell it, no one can guarantee that, but I am saying if you stay true to your story even if it means breaking the rules, your story will be stronger.
The important thing is to know what “rules” exist and to be able to justify why you broke these preconceived rules that people have and to show that you did so consciously. Ultimately, people aren’t going to focus on whether you broke the “rules” or not with your writing when deciding to buy it, they’re going to focus on whether you’ve put in the work to construct a compelling story that people want to read. If you do that, nothing else matters.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice once a month on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
Once – Ask Me Anything, Not Love by Mian Mohsin Zia, is a inspirational tale of the struggle for love by one man, Morkel, whose brand is “M–, No Time for Love”. But love strikes when it is least expected and who you would least expect to fall under it’s spell. Although it is a love story, it’s no romance and there are no HEAs in this tale.
I can’t deny that this is a cute story, but I had a hard time suspending disbelief, due partially to the fact that the characters weren’t deep enough for me to be able to care, and also because the dialog did not feel real to me. People just don’t talk that way in my experience. The characters are idealistic and I felt they acted in ways that were very unrealistic, as well. Morkel, the protagonist, comes off as being full of himself and he claims that as a novelist, he can read people, yet when love walks up and stares him in the eye, he doesn’t see it.
That being said, it is a well structured story with a clear character arc. Morkel changes as he realizes his own need for and ability to love. I found it very entertaining, but the ending was disappointing for me. I guess I’ve come to expect a HEA when I think of a love story, and I felt the promise of the premise was not fulfilled.
I will admit that Mian Mohsin Zia puts out a quality eBook, with very few typos. Obviously, he spends the money to have it edited and promote it right, as well. I suspect this may account for his amazing popularity as an author. In self-publishing, it seems, you really do get what you pay for.
Once – Ask Me Anything, Not Love is a love story from the male perspective, a unique and entertaining tale, but not a romance. I give it three quills.
This will be the last reflective post of the year. Next Monday’s post will find us in 2017. For my writing career it has been a slow take off, but I’ve seen progress. In July, I completed my Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. With emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting, and two completed novels, Delilah and Playground for the Gods Book 1: In the Beginning, two full feature film scripts and one comedy series pilot script in hand, I eagerly jumped right in to get my feet wet in either the publishing and/or screenwriting industry. I began submitting my work to agents, publishers, and competitions like crazy. I received mostly rejections, as expected, and although I still haven’t found a home for either novels or scripts, I did manage to find a home for two poems and two short stories. Not too bad. While the poems, Aspen Tree and Yucca! Yucca! Yucca!, appeared in print, (in Colorado Life (Sept.-Oct. 2016) and Manifest West Anthology #5 – Serenity and Severity, respectively), my short story, I Had to Do It was published on Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, and my not so short, short story, Hidden Secrets was published on Across the Margin.
2016 has been a pretty good year for Writing to be Read. The revamping of the blog site was completed in March, I’ve managed post things on a fairly regular basis, we were honored with guest posts by my friend Robin Conley, and my visits and page views have risen, with almost 2000 visitors and over 2,500 page views. Looking at this, makes me feel pretty good about the blog, as a whole. Another good change is the addition of screenwriting content, which I believe has drawn a larger audience by widening the scope of the content.
The top post of 2016 was my book review of Simplified Writing 101, by Erin Brown Conroy, which is an excellent tutorial on academic writing, including writing advice that every writing student should know. After that, the reflective post Writing Horror is Scary Business would be second in line. Other popular posts include my four part Making of a Screenplay series,( Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4), my Tribute to My Son, and What Amazon’s New Review Policies Mean for Writing to be Read. More recently, my ten part series on publishing, Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing gave me the opportunity to interview some awesome names in the publishing industry: self-published authors, Jeff Bowels, Tim Baker and Art Rosch; traditionally published authors Stacia Deutsch and Mark Shaw; independently published author Jordan Elizabeth; and children’s author Nancy Oswald, who has published under all three models; as well as Caleb Seeling, owner of Conundrum Press and Curiosity Quills Press – with the final installment summarizing the conclusions made from those interviews.
Many of my posts were reflections of my own writing experience. These included: Why Writing is a Labor of Love; Fear is a Writer’s Best Friend; I’ve Come A Long Way, Baby; Writing the Way That Works For You; Creating Story Equals Problem Solving; What’s A Nice Girl Like Me Doing Writing in a Genre Like This?; Acceptance or Rejection – Which Do You Prefer?; A Writer’s Life is No Bowel of Cherries; Write What You Know; Discouragement or Motivation?; What Ever Happened to Heather Hummingbird?; How You Can Help Build a Writer’s Platform; and Why Fiction is Better Than Fact.
Sadly, I only attended two events that were reported on, on Writing to be Read in 2016 – the 2016 Ice Festival in Cripple Creek, and the 2016 Writing the Rockies Conference in Gunnison, Colorado. What can I say? I’m a starving writer. This is something I hope to improve on in 2017 by attending more events to report on. One possible addition to the 2017 list that I’m very excited to think about is the Crested Butte Film Festival. The details are not ironed out yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Screenwriting content included this past year seemed to be popular. In addition to my Making of a Screenplay series and Writing Horror is Scary Business, Writing to be Read also featured Writing Comedy for Screen is a Risky Proposition, and a book review for Hollywood Game Plan, by Carole Kirshner, which I can’t recommend highly enough for anyone desiring to break into the screenwriting trade. Robin’s Weekly Writing Memo also included several writing tips that could be applied equally to literature or screenwriting.
Another project I’m particularly proud of is my ten part series on publishing, Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing, which I just finished up last week. In this series I interviewed nine professionals from within the industry to get the low down on the three different publishing models. My interviews included self-published authors Jeff Bowels, Tim Baker and Art Rosch, traditionally published authors Stacia Deutsch (children’s books) and Mark Shaw (nonfiction), and independently published YA author Jordan Elizabeth. To balance things out a bit, I also interviewed children’s author Nancy Oswald, who has published with all three models, Clare Dugmore of Curiosity Quills Press and Caleb Seeling, owner and publisher at Conundrum Press.
One of the great things about doing book reviews is that you get to read a lot of great books, in with the okay and not so great ones. In addition Simplified Writing 101, my five quill reviews in 2016 included Jordan Elizabeth’s Runners & Riders, Mark Shaw’s The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, Nancy Oswald’s Trouble Returns, Carol Riggs’ Bottled, Jeff Bowles’ Godling and Other Paint Stories, Janet Garber’s Dream Job, Art Rosch’s Confessions of an Honest Man, and Mark Todd and Kim Todd O’Connell’s Wild West Ghosts. I don’t give out five quills lightly and every one of these books are totally worthwhile reads.
Of course, not all books get a five quill rating. Other books I reviewed that I recommended with three quills or more include three short story anthologies: Chronology, Under a Brass Moon, and Cast No Shadows; two poetry collections: Suicide Hotline Hold Music by Jessy Randall and Walks Along the Ditch by Bill Trembley; Escape From Witchwood Hollow, Cogling, Treasure Darkly, The Goat Children, and Victorian by Jordan Elizabeth; Dark Places by Linda Ladd; Chosen to Die by Lisa Jackson; Wrinkles by Mian Mohsin Zia; Full Circle by Tim Baker; The 5820 Diaries by Chris Tucker; The Road Has Eyes: An RV, a Relationship, and a Wild Ride by Art Rosch; Hollywood Game Plan by Carol Kirschner; Keepers of the Forest by James McNally; 100 Ghost Soup by , and A Shot in the Dark by K.A. Stewart. I also did two movie reviews: Dead Pool and Point Break.
I feel very fortunate to have had Robin Conley join us with her Weekly Writing Memo and her guest movie reviews. The useful writing tips in her Weekly Writing Memos covered a wide range of topics including critiquing, using feedback, ways to increase tension, Relatability or Likeability?, 3 Types of Plot, story research, what to write, making your audience care, world building, handling feedback, writing relationships, establishing tone, editing, word choice, How to Start Writing, endings, queries, Parts of a Scene, making emotional connections, the influence of setting, Building a Story, Inciting Your Story, movement and dialog, Writing Truth, time, Overcoming the Blank Page, Networking, character names, theme, set up, cliches, parentheticals in screenwriting, horror inspiration, and Learning to Write. Robin’s guest post movie reviews included Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Batman vs. Superman, Miss Perigrin’s Home for Peculiar Children, and The Neon Demon.
I am thankful for Robin’s valuable content and am glad that she will still be contributing Memos on a monthly, rather than a weekly basis. Although I was sad to lose her weekly content, I am happy for her as she moves forward in her own writing career and I wish her well in her writing endeavors. For those of you who looked forward to her weekly posts, you can catch more of her content on her own blog, Author the World.
2016 was a great year for Writing to be Read, even if it was kind of rough for the author behind the blog. You readers helped to make it a good year and I thank you. Now it’s time to look ahead and see what’s in store for 2017 Writing to be Read. I mentioned some of the things I hope to achieve above: more posts pertaining to the screenwriting industry, and coverage of more events throughout the year are two of the goals I have set for my blog. I also plan to add some author, and hopefully, screenwriter profiles into the mix. I had good luck with author profiles during my Examiner days, and I think they will be well received here, as well.
I also hope to bring in some guests posts by various authors or bloggers, or maybe screenwriters, just to give you all a break from listening to me all the time. I believe Robin plans to continue with Monthly Writing Memos, which will be great, too.
I look forward to all the great books that I know are coming my way in 2017, too. The first reviews you have to look forward to are a short memoir, Banker Without Portfolio by Phillip Gbormittah, a YA paranormal romance, Don’t Wake Me Up by M.E.Rhines, a Rock Star romance, Bullet by Jade C. Jamison and a short story, How Smoke Got out of the Chimneys by DeAnna Knippling.
I hope all of you will join me here in the coming year. Follow me on WordPress, or subscribe to e-mail for notifications of new posts delivered to your inbox. Have a great 2017 and HAPPY WRITING!
One question I hear asked a lot to writers is, “where do you find your stories?” This question is sort of silly to me because stories are everywhere around you if you look. Every item you come across in your day has a story for how it became what it is, and got where it is. If you ask enough questions, eventually you’ll find some interesting element that you can turn into a compelling story if you try. I could go on for a long time about ways to find a story, so instead I decide, in honor of Halloween, to narrow the focus this week and discuss where to find inspiration for horror stories in particular.
For me, I really think horror stories have to either start with the protagonist or the “monster.” By monster, I mean whatever villain is in your story, be it a literal monster, a ghost, a serial killer, a psychological monster, a location, etc. I say this because the core of most horror stories is the conflict between these two entities — the protagonist and the monster — and I think starting with one of them can be the easiest way to start a horror story. If you start with the monster, you can ask yourself who would it go after and find your protagonist. If you start with the protagonist, you can ask yourself what type of monster would they encounter and go from there. Immediately either one can give you your story, but where do you find the protagonist or the monster?
If you want to start your horror story by coming up with your protagonist and you have no ideas in mind, you can go several directions:
- Pick someone you know and turn them into a character by changing some of their traits to make them slightly different.
- Pick a stranger on the street and create a character from them based on what you can infer from their appearance and behavior.
- Pick a stereotype character and then do a free write or character sheet to turn them into something more and give them depth.
- Pick an occupation and then create a character that fills that job role.
There are a ton of other ways to come up with a character, but these are a few of my favorite simple ones. Once you have a character in mind you can find your monster by asking yourself where would this character go to find trouble? Does it find them, or do they seek it out by going somewhere they shouldn’t? Do they have a friend that takes them to a haunted forest? Do they live near a mental asylum where a killer can escape? Do they work in a hospital where people die every day and ghosts may linger? Do they go swimming or camping in a secluded area where monsters could lurk in the shadows?
Think about all the places your character may go on a daily or weekly basis and think about what kinds of monsters they could encounter there. If none of these places is suitable, then think about what kind of friends your character has, and what kind of trouble those characters could get the protagonist into. Do they have a reckless friend who likes going into abandoned buildings? A crazy friend who sees things? A friend who picks up shady drifters and brings them home? Once you have the monster your character would most likely meet, you can start creating the plot between the monster and the protagonist and find your story.
As I said earlier, when I use the term “monster” I don’t necessarily mean a literal monster, but rather I mean any type of antagonist your character will come up against in the story. Monsters can be anywhere, and if you’re prone to writing horror it’s a good idea to keep a list somewhere of various monster ideas whenever you come up with one. A few places that I generally find monster ideas include:
- Reading about urban legends and mythical creatures. Those cheap tabloid papers have some great ones of these, as do those random lists of legends, myths, and creatures that are all over the internet. Pick one and make it your own, give it a setting, and see where it takes you.
- Phobias. These are a great source for monster inspiration because once you pick a phobia you can use it to build your monster. Think of phobia that you like, or look up a list and pick one, and then ask yourself if your character has that fear what kind of monster would trigger it? Do they have a fear of being alone? Then how about you forget them in the middle of the ocean after a deep sea diving expedition (Open Water). Do they have a fear of the dark, well how about a monster that only appears in the darkness and can make the lights go out (Lights Out, Darkness Falls)? Whatever phobia you choose, ask yourself where or how your character can be forced to face it, and what kind of monster could cause them to. Sometimes it’s even the monster that has the fear (Lights Out) and it can be used as part of how the protagonist defeats them, so you can also try to create a monster from that angle as well.
- True unsolved mysteries or famous oddities. These are a great source for horror because they’re true, unexplained, and usually, have just the right amount of creepiness to them that they can be twisted even further for the perfect horror story.
Any of the options above can work for finding a monster to create your horror story around, but they aren’t the only way. At the heart, the monster comes from the twisting of something that is somewhat normal to something threatening. Think about it. Cujo was a dog, a ghost is just a (dead) person, water is just water, etc, but all can be turned and twisted to become a monster. So if you can’t find some kind of monster from the ideas above, then try taking something random and asking how could it be dangerous? How could it be scary?
Once you have the “monster,” then ask yourself what kind of character would they either go after or accidentally encounter? Is the monster in a lake at a teen summer camp? Are they in a house that a nice young family has just moved into? Are they in a school where kids just want to go to prom? Once you know who your monster’s victims are, and where the monster hunts, then you have your story.
Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing (Part 3): Interview with Self-Published Author Arthur RoschPosted: October 31, 2016
Your at a dinner party, chatting with other guests when someone asks what you do. You say that you’re an author and everyone is adequately impressed. It’s not every day you meet a bonefide author. Then you mention that you are self-published, and suddenly they all have somewhere better to be.
Self-publishing carries with it a certain stigma. In part, it may be due to a certain number of poor quality self-published books that flooded the market with the rise in popularity of the self-publishing market. With the rise of digital media, almost over night, it was no longer necessary to seek out and captivate a traditional publisher, and anyone, whether they write well or not, could become an author. In the beginning, as it is with most rising trends, self-publishing was a rather expensive proposition, and many authors didn’t have a whole lot to invest, so they skimped by on costs by skipping things like professional editing. Some maybe had their mother or their aunt or their brother give it a once over, but none of them had a trained eye. Others didn’t even do that, believing that their writing was so good, it didn’t need to be edited, or perhaps they were just out to make a buck, and didn’t really care if they put out a quality book. But, for whatever reasons, a lot of less than good quality self-published books made their way out into the market, marring the reputation of the self-publishing industry.
Companies like Amazon and Smashwords put another bump in the industry when they offered authors yet another avenue for publication with the e-book. Digital publishing was cheaper and easier than publishing print copies. In fact, it is virtually free to publish digitally, freeing up funds to be used for things like editing in order to create a quality piece of literature. Of course, there will always be those who are just in it for the money and don’t really care if the book they put out there is good quality, as long as it makes them money. They’re the types that will take advantage of the savings of digital publication to line their own pockets and still won;t bother to pay an editor. They are the authors that wouldn’t survive in the digital publishing world, but hopefullly, there are less of them now.
Despite the stigma attached to self-publishing, there are many talented self-published authors out there, who care about creating and publishing a quality literary product. Today’s interview is with self-published author, Arthur Rosch, who puts whatever time and effort is required into his books, sometimes taking years to complete them. Art is a talented writer. His publishing credits include his travel memoir, The Road has Eyes: A Relationship, An RV, and a Wild Ride through Indian Country, his literary novel, Confessions of an Honest Man, and his epic science fiction novel, The Gods of the Gift. Art shares a positive outlook on self-publishing with previously interviewed self-published authors, Tim Baker and Jeff Bowles. Here, Art shares his thoughts on the publishing industry with his very generous answers, as he candidly relates his own publishing journey.
Kaye: Would you share your own publishing story with us?
Art: I’ve been reading for pleasure since I was five.years old I remember the day I learned to read. It came like a lightning bolt. Aha! So that’s how it works! I made the connection between letters and the sounds they represented. It was my third week in kindergarten. I hated school but I loved to read books. I started by reading historical novels. The other kids were reading “Dick And Jane Go To The Farm”.
When I was fifteen I fell madly in love with a girl. She wanted certain attributes in a boyfriend. One of those requirements was that said boyfriend should be a poet. So, I began to write poetry to please my girlfriend. She turned out to be far less faithful than the process of writing. I gave up on the girl and stuck with the writing. When I was twenty five I was seized by the ambition to write a novel. The project became a science fiction novel called THE GONGS OF SPACE. It was awful. It did, however, attract the interest of literary agent Scott Meredith. I signed a two year contract, and proceeded to write more novels. None of them sold. I had plenty of imagination but lacked some fundamental skills in the craft of writing.. I also needed more life experience.
I’m old enough to remember the “old” model of publishing. I had an entree into that world of agents, editors and publishers. A short story of mine won Playboy Magazine’s Best Story Of The Year Award. I had my fifteen minutes of fame. All the doors were open.
Playboy invited me (with an expense account) to their twenty fifth anniversary party.. I came away with a pocket full of business cards from important people in the publishing industry. Unfortunately, at that time I was dabbling in drugs. That dabble turned into a roaring addiction that derailed me for twenty years. I wrote during those decades. I wrote a lot. But I was like the Hubble Telescope before it was repaired. I couldn’t focus. I had a wonderful opportunity that I wasted by making a very bad choice. This kind of blunder is the stuff of life. I admit, I screwed up. I prefer to regard that interval in my life as “experience”. It was my Dark Night Of The Soul I had lost my family, my home, my possessions and my dignity. But I learned from my suffering.
What can a writer do without insight into the human condition? What decent writer is not also an observer and a psychologist?. My addiction years were loaded with with lessons. I sank to the bottom of the social order. I was on the streets, completely mired in the human experience. I learned from the streets. I learned hard. Then I had to put myself back together.
Addiction is one of the central pillars of my life narrative. I wanted to heal myself, so I went into a long therapy and read everything I could find about family dynamics, addiction and obsession.. Some writers need to spend an apprenticeship in the realm of compulsion, irrationality, bad choices and failure. By the time I was in my mid forties I had a thorough apprenticeship under my belt.
When I surfaced from that underworld, I started looking for an agent. A whole generation of agents had come and gone. The publishing world had changed. I was now (by my own evaluation) a fine writer with a distinctive voice. Agents weren’t interested in me. I wrote hundreds of query letters. I had three novels and a memoir that were ready for editing and representation. I got rejections again and again. How many times did I read the same phrases? “Not quite right for us”, “good luck with your writing career”, “though you write well, I couldn’t quite fall in love with this project.”
It’s likely that you’ve also read these phrases.. In 2001 I wrote to the Scott Meredith Agency in an attempt to re-kindle some kind of relationship. My letter was answered by the head editor. Meredith had passed away and the agency continued under a new owner. My novel, CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN was well under way. The editor loved the manuscript and offered to work with me. I was not a client of the agency. I was a side-project. The editor, B.N. Malzberg., charged no fee, and worked with me on his own time. The guidance he provided helped to make CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN into a mature and viable novel.
Still, no agents wanted to represent me. It was an odd situation. Malzberg didn’t have the authority to bring me on board. I don’t know why. I never will. I’m grateful to Mr. Malzberg for the help he gave me in bringing that wonderful novel to fruition.
Kaye: What are your thoughts on the self-publishing industry?
Art: I spend a lot of time writing my novels. Some of my books have been in process for thirty years. THE GODS OF THE GIFT, a sci fi epic, was begun in 1978 and wasn’t completed until 2012. Nowadays the book scene is so competitive that a writer needs to have an extensive body of work. Writers are forced to view their works as Product. The more product you have, the more you can sell. I have to learn to write more quickly. My travel memoir, THE ROAD HAS EYES, was finished in a year. Now I’m writing a crime novel. In a month I’ve racked up 20,000 words. I do all my own cover designs. I hire out the formatting. I mostly self-edit but that’s not really a good idea. It’s better to join a writing group and share your work with your peers. Better still, hire a good editor.
It’s useful to identify one’s “brand” with a genre. It’s also good to write series. The reading audience loves series. My crime novel will be a series based on the characters I’ve invented. I have a fantasy trilogy in the works. Book One is complete. Book Two, the sequel, is under way. I’m not known as a genre writer. With good reason. My portfolio consists of one memoir, one literary novel, three sci fi novels and a crime novel-in-progress. I also have nearly three hundred blog posts in the form of reviews, poems and essays. My “brand recognition” doesn’t stick. Fortunately I have relationships with magazines like Across The Margin and Exquisite Corpse. ATM has published a lot of my work. I’ve also published as a photographer with magazines like
Shutterbug and Popular Photography. I had a centerfold in CAT FANCY. Our beautiful cat, Agate, was shown without her clothes. Agate didn’t care. She never wears clothes. We don’t believe in dressing up animals to look like people.
Kaye: Why did you choose to self-publish your books?
Art: Four years ago I began to explore the self-publishing world. Getting a book published is easy. Marketing the book is another matter. I’m not a good marketer. I plunged into the crazy world of podcasts, webinars and the pitches of various book marketing gurus. I was trying to get a basic grip on marketing strategies. The problem is that the parameters for marketing change so fast that it’s impossible to know how to approach the world of self-promotion.. Also, I was broke. Marketing costs money. I spent $1500 on paid-for reviews and marketing “helpers”. These investments weren’t completely useless, but they didn’t do much to boost my sales.
I would estimate that at least $5000 is required for a marketing budget. That’s just for starters. If you’re lucky, and if you have some talent, your investment will begin to show returns fairly quickly. You’re going to need a knack for business promotion. Marketing a self published book requires patience. Patience. Patience. Just don’t give up. You’re going to encounter a lot of rejection and a lot of discouragement. It goes with the profession of writing.
Kaye: How much non-writing work, (marketing & promotion, illustrations & book covers, etc…), do you do yourself for your books?
Art: The first thing I do every day is drop a Tweet about one of my books. Twitter is free. Facebook is…well, not quite free. As the world’s population increases, so do the number of writers competing for a piece of the audience pie. I’ve learned, to my dismay, that you don’t have to be a good writer to be successful. You just have to be a good story teller. Many popular writers tell the same story over and over again. They hit on a formula that works, and they milk it. I don’t have it in me, to be a lazy writer. I pour my heart and soul into everything I do. My books enjoy modest sales. My platform is almost non–existent. It will take time to develop my platform until it’s something more than a few Popsicle sticks taped together.
Most of my “writing time” is actually study time. When I write, I write. But I spend three or four hours a day studying marketing. And I’ll admit I’m confused. The major advertising venues change their parameters suddenly and arbitrarily. Facebook had an advertising algorithm that was favorable to the writer. Then they changed the algorithm. The amount of pay changed downward. Same with Amazon, same with Google. It’s like writing in an earthquake. The ground shifts under our feet. But that’s life, isn’t it? The ground always shifts under our feet. The one thing you can count on is CHANGE.
Kaye: Would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring authors?
Art: Traditional publishing now resembles self-publishing so much that it’s difficult to pry them apart. If you sign a contract with a big house you’re still going to have to do your own marketing. If you’re a major name, that’s different. Steven King doesn’t do his own marketing. But Arthur Rosch will indeed have to market, whether he’s self published or under contract to Random House. So…why not self publish? Statistics reveal that self publishing is garnering an ever-increasing market share. There’s no longer a stigma attached to self publishing.
Don’t give up. Persist. Stay with what you love, and if you love writing, then, you must write. Right?
You can visit my book website at roschbooks.com. My e-books are $2.99. I signed up for the Amazon KDP promotion but I haven’t seen any benefit. Next step will be to publish real paperback books. I recommend self-publishing for the simple reason that many of us have no choice. It’s so difficult to hook an agent these days that you might as well fish for salmon in the local park’s swimming pool.
I want to thank Art for sharing his story with us. Be sure and check in next week on Writing to be Read, when I’ll talk with traditionally published children’s author, Stacia Deutsch and get her views on the publishing industry.
Did you like this post? Subscribe to email and be notified each time a new post is made here on Writing to be Read.