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Friday, January 9, 2009

The Fill-in-the-Blank Guide to Writing Fiction

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Creating Characters

1. Create the Character’s General Profile. Creating a character is largely a matter of making choices, or decisions. To aid you in making these decisions, you can use a fill-in-the-blank decision-making template. We will start with a blank template. Then, we will fill in its blanks to show an example of how the template can be used to create a character.

Notes: If one of the blanks does not apply, simply write "N/A" in it, to indicate that the blank (and the situation to which it refers) is “not applicable.” When necessary, add more blanks--for example, your character may have more than one friend or coworker. You may want to add brief notations in parentheses after an entry. For example, if the character is separated or divorced from a spouse, you may want to indicate this situation by the parenthetical notation “(separated)” or “(divorced).” You can add other elements, represented by labeled blanks, to further extend the construction of your character.

____________________ (name of character) is a(n) ____________________ (age of character) ____________________ (social role of character), who works as a(n) ____________________ (vocation of character), supervised by ____________________ (name of character’s supervisor) and assisted by ____________________ (name of coworker or coworkers; add blanks as necessary); his or her friend (or friends) is (are) ____________________ (name[s] of character’s friend or friends; add blanks as necessary), whom he or she met while he or she was ____________________ (name of activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her friend or friends). The character lives in ____________________ (name of hometown and state) at (in) ____________________ (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with ____________________ (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her ____________________ (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is ____________________ (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), whom he or she met at ____________________ (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while ____________________ (type of the activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse).

Here is an example:

Buffy Summers (name of character) is a(n) 16-year-old (age of character) high school student (social role of character), who works as a(n) vampire slayer (vocation of character), supervised by Rupert Giles (name of character’s supervisor), and assisted by Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others (name[s] of coworker or coworkers; add blanks as necessary); his or her friend (friends) is (are) Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others (name[s] of character’s friend or friends; add blanks as necessary), whom he or she met while he or she was
attending high school (name of activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her friend or friends). The character lives in Sunnydale, California (name of hometown and state or country) at (in) home (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with Joyce Summers (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her mother (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is Angel (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife), whom he or she met at The Bronze (a club for teenagers) (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while he or she was dancing (type of activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse).

To make your character profile easier to read, simply eliminate the underlines, any unneeded or redundant material, and the parenthetical elements:

Buffy Summers is a 16-year-old high school student who works as a vampire slayer, supervised by Rupert Giles, and assisted by Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others; her friends are Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others, whom she met while she was attending high school. The character lives in Sunnydale, California, at home with Joyce Summers, her mother. Her boyfriend is Angel, whom she met at The Bronze (a club for teenagers), while she was dancing.

Notes: If the character’s situation changes, update the template. For example, Buffy Summers graduates from high school and attends UC Sunnydale. Thereafter, she drops out of college and returns home. She also acquires a kid sister, Dawn, and her mother dies. Her friend Willow moves in with her, and they acquire another roommate. For a while, Giles moves back to England, so she is without a supervisor, or mentor. Her friend Cordelia Chase moves to Los Angeles, and Buffy sees her only rarely thereafter. Other slayers (Kendra and Faith) are introduced, as are a group of Potential Slayers, all of whom complicate the plot and its various conflicts. Using a copy of the blank template, repeat the process for each character in your story.

2. Create the Character’s Back Story. A character’s back story makes him or her more believable as a character and can help to establish his or her motivation for taking the course of action that he or she adopts in his or her present situation. Make sure that the back story relates to and supports the main story that is presently being told. Otherwise, it will be irrelevant and confusing to the reader. To aid you in making these decisions, you can use a decision-making template, such as the one that we use, which takes the form of a fill-in-the-blank format. We will start with a blank template. Then, we will fill in its blanks to show an example of how the template can be used to create a character’s back story.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to creating the character’s back story as apply to creating his or her general profile.

Before _________________ (name of character) _________________ (incident that precipitated the character’s present situation, in general), he or she was a(n) _________________ (social role of character) living in ____________________ (name of hometown and state) at (in) ____________________ (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with ____________________ (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her ____________________ (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is ____________________ (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), whom he or she met at ____________________ (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while ____________________ (that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse). At this time of his or her life, the greatest difficulty or problem that he or she faced was ____________________ (type of difficulty or problem), which resulted in ____________________ (result of difficulty or problem), and now affects him or her by ____________________ (brief explanation as to how the difficulty or problem NOW affects the character).

Here is an example:

Before Buffy Summers (name of character) moved to Sunnydale, CA (incident that precipitated the character’s present situation, in general), he or she was a(n)high school student (social role of character) living in Los Angeles, CA (name of hometown and state) at (in) home (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with Joyce Summers and Hank Summers (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her parents (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is N/A (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), whom he or she met at N/A (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while N/A (that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse). At this time of his or her life, the greatest difficulty or problem that he or she faced was her parents’ divorce and her calling to be the current vampire slayer (type of difficulty or problem), which resulted in her blaming herself for her parents’ divorce and her desire to live a normal life (result of difficulty or problem), and now affects him or her by making her desire to please her father and causing her to divide her loyalties between her duty and her desire to socialize (brief explanation as to how the difficulty or problem NOW affects the character).

Again, if the character’s back story is further developed, update the template. For example, Buffy Summers’ father comes to visit her in Sunnydale on several occasions, and a demon uses her guilt concerning her parents’ divorce to emotionally manipulate her. Buffy’s desire to date and to socialize with her friends often causes problems between her and her supervisor, the Watcher Rupert Giles, and between her and her mother, Joyce; in addition, it sometimes endangers others. At one time, she even considers “quitting” her “job” as a slayer and letting others (Kendra, Faith, and her friends) take over her duties. Although she remains true to her calling, doing so requires many personal sacrifices.

Finally, simplify the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

Before Buffy Summers moved to Sunnydale, CA, she was a high school student living in Los Angeles, CA, at home with Joyce Summers and Hank Summers, her parents. At this time of her life, the greatest difficulty or problem that she faced was her parents’ divorce and her calling to be the current vampire slayer, which resulted in her blaming herself for her parents’ divorce and her desire to live a normal life, and now affects her by causing her to seek to please her father and to divide her loyalties between her duty and her desire to socialize.

3. Define the Character’s Major and Minor Conflicts. The character must be involved in at least one major and usually several related minor conflicts between or among aspects or elements of nature, him- or herself, other characters, and/or God. In other words, conflicts will be natural, psychological, social, and spiritual or theological. Use the following template to identify this conflict or these conflicts.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to identifying the conflict in which your character is involved as apply to creating his or her general profile. If several conflicts are in operation in your story, you may want to develop a template for each type of conflict and each specific example of the conflict that your character encounters rather than try to represent all of them on a single template.

As a(n) ________________ (social role of character) and a(n) _________________ (vocation of character), __________________ (name of character) is in conflict with __________________ (force, plant, animal, person, group, or spiritual being) concerning __________________ (brief description of the nature of the conflict), which conflict is resolved by __________________ (method of conflict’s resolution), when __________________ (brief description of
character’s action in resolving the conflict) in (at) __________________
(location at which the conflict is resolved).

Here is an example:

As a(n) high school student (social role of character) and a(n) vampire slayer (vocation of character), Buffy Summers (name of character) is in conflict with her calling (force, plant, animal, person, group, or spiritual being) concerning foregoing a “normal life” in favor of slaying vampires (brief description of the nature of the conflict), which conflict is resolved by the near death of her mother and one of her friends because of Buffy’s neglect of her duties as the slayer (method of conflict’s resolution), when Buffy resumes her duties as the slayer (brief description of character’s action in resolving the conflict) in (at) Sunnydale, CA (location at which the conflict is resolved).

Again, simplify the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

As a high school student and a vampire slayer, Buffy Summers is in conflict with her calling concerning foregoing a “normal life” in favor of slaying vampires, which conflict is resolved by the near death of her mother and one of her friends because of Buffy’s neglect of her duties as the slayer, when Buffy resumes her duties as the slayer in Sunnydale, CA.

4. Identify the Character’s Motivation(s). The character must act because something internal (intrinsic) or external (extrinsic) compels him or her to act. This compulsion, the character’s motivation, must be both significant (meaningful and important) and powerful, especially if his or her acting upon this motive could or actually does endanger him- or herself or others. As a result of a past or present experience, this motive will be grounded in some belief, emotion, or value. At the same time, the character’s motive may make him or her sympathetic to the reader. Use the following template to identify the character’s motivation.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to identifying your character’s motivation as apply to creating his or her general profile.

________________ (name of character) is motivated to ________________
(vocational role of character) by his or her ________________ (belief, experience, emotion, or value) because ________________ (name of experience, past or present, which established the character’s motive).

Here is an example:

Buffy Summers (name of character) is motivated to slay vampires (vocational role of character) by his or her valuing of human life and social justice (belief, experience, emotion, or value) because her friends and family were nearly killed by a vampire (name of experience, past or present, which established the character’s motive).

Again, simplify the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

Buffy Summers is motivated to slay vampires by her valuing of human life and social justice because her friends and family were nearly killed by a vampire.

Plotting the Story

Literary critic Gustav Freytag divided plots into five parts, or acts: (1) exposition, (2) rising action, (3) turning point, or climax, (4) falling action, and (5) resolution (comedy) or catastrophe (tragedy). In addition, he identifies two other points: (1) the inciting moment, which concludes the exposition as it initiates the rising action and (2) an optional moment of final suspense, in which the reader or viewer is left in doubt for a moment as to whether the protagonist shall succeed or fail in his or her attempt to realize the goal that he or she has set or that has been set for him or her. In the exposition, background information (such as the introduction of the protagonist and other characters, the identification of the setting, and the introduction of the basic, or main, conflict) is provided. The inciting moment initiates the rising action, wherein the conflict is complicated as a series of increasingly more difficult obstacles is placed between the protagonist and his or realization of his or her goal. The turning point, or climax, occurs as the protagonist begins to succeed or fail at his or her attempt to achieve his or her goal. (In a comedy, which is defined as a story in which the main character is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning of the story, things will go badly for him or her at the beginning of the story but will begin to improve at the turning point, or climax. In a tragedy, which is defined as a story in which the main character is worse off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning of the story, things will go well for him or her at the beginning of the story but will begin to worsen at the turning point, or climax.) The falling action unravels the conflict that was complicated during the rising action. If the story is a comedy, it will end in a resolution, whereas, if it is a tragedy, it will end in a catastrophe. With this information in mind, you can use the following template to structure the plot of your story:

The main character, _________________ _________________, wants to_________________ because _________________ , but he or she must struggle against _________________ _________________, who wants _________________ because _________________. This story takes place in _________________ (location) in _________________ (time period). To attain his or her goal, _________________ _________________ (the main character) must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: _________________, _________________, and _________________ (add more if desired). For the main character, for whom everything goes _________________ (well or poorly) at the beginning of the story, the turning point (climax) occurs when he or she _________________, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to _________________(worsen or improve). At the end of the story, _________________ _________________ (the main character) _________________ (attains or does not attain) his or her goal, because _________________ (reason), learning that ________________ (lesson learned from the experience; the story’s theme) and, as a result, changes by _________________ (how the main character changes).

Here is an example:

The main character, Dorothy Gale, wants to return to her home in Kansas because she is homesick, but she must struggle against the Wicked Witch of the West, who
wants Dorothy‘s ruby slippers because they are magic. This story takes place in Oz (location) in the present day (time period). To attain her goal, of returning home, Dorothy Gale (the main character) must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: escape the fighting trees, survive the deadly poppy field, and seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick (add more if desired). For the main character, for whom everything goes poorly (well or poorly) at the beginning of the story, the turning point (climax) occurs when she is sent by the Wizard to seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to improve (worsen or improve). At the end of the story, Dorothy Gale (the main character) attains (attains or does not attain) her goal, because Glinda, the Good Witch, tells Dorothy how to use the ruby slippers to take her home (reason), learning that there‘s no place like home (lesson learned from the experience; the story’s
theme) and, as a result, changes by being content with her life on her Kansas farm (how the main character changes).

Again, simpifly the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read: eliminate the parenthetical elements, redundancies, and underlining, and make any other minor changes that are needed or desired:

Dorothy Gale wants to return to her home in Kansas because she is homesick, but she must struggle against the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants Dorothy's ruby slippers because they are magic. This story takes place in Oz, in the present day. To attain her goal, of returning home, Dorothy must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: escape the fighting trees, survive the deadly poppy field, and seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick. For the main character, for whom everything goes poorly at the beginning of the story, the turning point occurs when she is sent by the Wizard to seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to improve. At the end of the story, Dorothy attains her goal, because Glinda, the Good Witch, tells Dorothy how to use the ruby slippers to take her home, and she learns that there’s no place like home and, as a result, changes by being content with her life on her Kansas farm.

Establish the Setting

The setting of a story includes the time and place and the historical and the cultural milieu in which the action, or what happens, takes place. It is the container, as it were, of the story. Often, the setting will help you to determine who your characters are; what their interests, goals, and motivations are; and maybe even what the conflicts and the theme of your story will be. Use the following template to establish your story’s setting.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to establishing your story’s setting as apply to creating a character.

The story takes place at in (at) _________________ (place) at (in) __________________ (time period), during _________________ (historical period or event), and is important to the character’s _________________ (emotional or psychological state or conflict) because it _________________ (reason).

Here is an example:

The story takes place at in (at) Kansas and Oz (place) at (in) the nineteenth century (time period), during N/A (historical period or event), and is important to the character’s feelings about her home (emotional or psychological state or conflict) because it represents a place with which she is dissatisfied at first but a place with which she is content later (reason).

Again, simply the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

The story takes place in Kansas and Oz in the nineteenth century and is important to the character’s feelings about her home because it represents a place with which she is dissatisfied at first but a place with which she is content later.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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