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Friday, May 29, 2009

Reading, Writing, and Plotting

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Other writers won’t write your stories for you, of course, any more than they’re apt to outline a plot for you. It’s challenging enough to do so for oneself, after all. However, a careful reading of a writer’s paragraphs and a little brainstorming can suggest storylines to readers which can then be developed into full-fledged plots.

Let me demonstrate, using paragraphs from the first chapter of Dean Koontz’s novel, Odd Hours, which, its flyleaf informs readers, is about “a fry cook named Odd” who’s “rumored to have the extraordinary ability to communicate with the dead.”

This paragraph, the fifth of the opening chapter, itself sounds like the opening paragraph of a novel’s first chapter:
Overnight, according to the radio, an airliner had crashed in Ohio. Hundreds perished. The sole survivor, a ten-month-old child, had been found upright and unscathed in a battered seat that stood in a field of scorched and twisted debris.
The dramatic situation described by this paragraph raises many questions, the answers to which could well start a reader on the way of becoming a writer of a story involving such a child.

Although some of the questions that this situation suggests are obvious, your answers to them need not be: Why was the airliner over Ohio? What had been its itinerary? What caused it to crash? How many “hundreds” actually “perished”? Who were these passengers? Were there any famous persons aboard? If so, why were they flying on this route? What business were they conducting? Whom were they meeting? Why did the child survive when “hundreds” of other passengers “perished”? Is the child a boy or a girl? Why was the child “unscathed” after being involved in such a horrendous crash? Was some power--perhaps God--looking out for the child? If so, why? Was the child to have been given a mission in his or her later life? Were aliens involved in the crash? Monsters? Demons? Psychotic killers? Terrorists? Government agents? Military personnel? (Incidentally, Koontz did write a psychological thriller called Sole Survivor.)

This paragraph, number six in the first chapter of Odd Hours, could also start the first chapter of its own novel:
Throughout the morning, under the expectant sky, low sluggish waves exhausted themselves on the shore. The Pacific was gray and awash with inky shadows, as if sinuous sea beasts of fantastical form swam just below the surface.
Imagine that the “sea beasts” are more than the effects of odd shadows; imagine that they are real. Why do the “sea beasts” have a “fantastical form”? Did they suffer bizarre birth defects? Are the biologically engineered? Are they specimens from another planet? If so, how did they come to inhabit Earth’s oceans, and why? Where are they going, and why? Does anyone know of their existence? If so, who? If not, why not? Will they be discovered? If so, how, and by whom? If not, why not?

Paragraphs seven and eight of the same chapter could also open the first chapter in a separate novel:
During the night, I had twice awakened from a dream in which the tide flowed red and the sea throbbed with a terrible light.
As nightmares go, I’m sure you’ve had worse. The problem is that a few of my dreams have come true, and people have died.
The red tide seems to allude to the flood of blood in the story of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, as told in the book of Exodus. Is this allusion intentional? If so, what is its significance to the current story? If not, what caused the red tide? What is the “terrible light” with which “the sea throbbed”? What is it origin? What is its purpose? Who is the narrator and why does he have prophetic dreams? In which ones did people die? Who were these people, how did they die, and why did they die?
The next paragraph could also head its own opening chapter in a completely different novel:
While I prepared breakfast for my employer, the kitchen radio brought news that the jihadists who had the previous day seized an ocean liner in the Mediterranean and were now beheading passengers.
Answers--especially unexpected ones--to similar questions could generate a storyline that could be developed into a full-scale plot for a novel about these jihadists and the forces which are assembled to defeat them. (Remember to use the journalists’ favorite questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? You may also want to add How many? Or How much? Answers to these questions tend to cover the basic elements of any story and can, therefore, help you to devise a good basic storyline as a basis for a fully developed plot.)
There are several other paragraphs in the first chapter (and others) of Odd Hours, but the point has been made: a careful reading of a writer’s paragraphs and a little brainstorming can suggest storylines to readers which can then be developed into full-fledged plots.

Koontz’s opening chapter also demonstrates another technique for creating an interesting situation, through characterization, via action, narration, and dialogue, that becomes a springboard to producing interesting storylines. Initially, the novel’s protagonist (who also happens to be its first-person narrator) seems like a likeable, if rather pedestrian, run-of-the-mill kind of guys whom everyone knows as an acquaintance, friend, neighbor, brother, nephew, or son, the male equivalent of the girl next door: wholesome, shy, perhaps a bit naïve. He has a sense of humor and an engaging manner, and he sounds altogether rational and sane--at first. However, as he continues to chat, readers soon discover that he is not as he seems. There is something not quite right about his patter, something a little off about his chitchat, something a bit eerie, in fact, about his conversation. Here’s an example of this technique:

My experience at the Pico Mundo Grill served me well. If you can make hash browns that wring a flood from salivary glands, fry bacon to the crispness of a cracker without parching it, and make pancakes as rich as pudding yet so fluffy they seem to be at risk of floating off the plate, you will always find work.

At four-thirty that afternoon in late January, when I stepped into the parlor with Boo, my dog, Hutch was in his favorite armchair, scowling at the television, which he had muted. . . .

I left by the front door, through which Boo had already passed. The dog waited for me in the fenced yard.

An arched trellis framed the gate. Through white lattice twined with bougainvillea that produced a few flowers even in winter.

I closed the gate behind me and Boo passed through it as for a moment I stood drawing breaths of the crisp salted air.

Boo and I followed the concrete boardwalk. He was a German shepherd mix, entirely white. The moon traveling horizon to horizon moved no more quietly than did Boo.

Everything seems perfectly ordinary, even idyllic, and the reader is likely to like Odd, thinking him the very epitome of normality--until he informs the reader that
Only I was aware of him, because he was a ghost dog.
The everyday topics about which Odd has been chatting, his demeanor, and the reaction of his employer, to whom he’d been speaking before going for a walk with his dog, like the physical description that he offers of his canine companion’s breed, coloration, and quiet walk, all make the reader think of Odd as being quite as sane as Boo is real. It’s something of a shock, then, to discover that he believes not only in ghosts but in a “ghost dog” that accompanies him everywhere he goes! An even greater shock is in store for the reader, however, as Odd now divulges a secret that may cause his confidant, the reader, to suppose Odd to be not merely eccentric, but mad:

I see the spirits of dead people who are reluctant to move on from this world. In my experience, however, animals are always eager to proceed to what comes next. Boo was unique.

His failure to depart was a mystery. The dead don’t talk, and neither do dogs, so my canine companion obeyed two vows of silence.

The shock is almost and eerie as powerful as the one that results from reading Theodore Kaczynski’s treatise, “Industrialism Society and Its Future,” in which the Unabomber demonstrates impeccable logic, despite his dubious assumptions, until the moment that he writes, in as matter of fact a tone as he has used throughout his essay and continues to employ after his astonishing confession, in laying out his arguments as to why industrialism is destroying American independence and individual freedom: “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people.”

This technique--having a narrator of apparently sound mind abruptly say something that leaves no doubt that he is insane after speaking in a normal manner at some length about everyday topics--could launch an entire novel. In Odd Hours, however, Koontz chooses literally to mean what Odd Thomas says: the short-order cook isn’t mad; he really does see dead people.

The next time you pick up a horror novel, by Koontz or anyone else, apply the principle we’ve outlined in this article. Carefully, read the writer’s paragraphs and do a little brainstorming to imagine storylines that you can then develop into full-fledged plots.

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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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