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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plotting the Horror Story: Lessons from Poe, King, and Koontz

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

As I mentioned in my “‘The Philosophy of Composition’ and ‘The Red Room’” article, Edgar Allan Poe argues that a writer shouldn’t write anything at all until he or she knows how his or her story (or poem) will end and, in fact, should plot the narrative backward, from the ending to the beginning, so that he or she is able to maximize the impact of the story’s emotional effect. This is sound advice, but, for many aspiring writers, it poses a difficult question: how, precisely, would a writer know how to write a story backward, as it were?

I certainly wouldn’t challenge the advice of a writer of Poe’s stature. Among horror writers, he is in class by himself, a true master among masters. Not even today’s maestro, Stephen King, whose output dwarfs Poe’s own work, measures up against Poe.

What I am prepared to do, though, is to offer two other, alternative methods of plotting horror fiction. One is based upon my analysis of King’s work--or, at least, my analysis of a few of King’s novels. I believe that this alternative approach can suit today’s writers, whether of horror or another genre of fiction, well.

Let’s consider a novel that has been the topic of quite a few of my own recent posts to Chillers and Thrillers: Under the Dome. The evil that takes place in this story occurs as the result of the descent of a transparent dome, or barrier, that cuts off a small town in Maine, Chester’s Mill, from the rest of the United States and, indeed, the world. The wickedness ends when the dome is lifted. What comes down must go up. This is the basis of the alternative method of ending stories that I mentioned. Not down and up (or even up and down, for that matter) per se, but a pair--any pair--of binary opposites: down/up, left/right, start/stop, right/wrong, good/evil. . . you name them

We tend to think in dualities, ordering reality according to a twofold structure of opposite categories, traits, or values. Of course, such a structure is far too simplistic and, therefore, erroneous. There is always a middle ground, always a great many shades of gray between the extremes of black and white.

King is aware of this, of course, and his novel takes advantage of the simplicity of the duality of dome-down/dome up. First, the military tries to destroy the dome by launching two Cruise missiles against the barrier. When this tactic fails, the brass douses the dome with an experimental acid that is capable of penetrating solid rock. Again, the attack fails. The dome remains in place, unharmed. It is only when Julia Shumway persuades the adolescent extraterrestrial female who has set the dome in place to remove it that the barrier is taken away.

In Desperation, King uses another pair of opposites to structure his problem-solution plot. The demon Tak escapes from a caved-in mine which is opened by a local mining company. He wrecks havoc until the mine is closed again. The dichotomy: open (mine)/closed (mine). The horror and terror and evil and pain and suffering takes place between these two polarities. Again, a duality (open/close) is used to structure the novel’s plot.

Any duality can become the basis of a plot, and using the array of points between the extremes of the continuum, the writer can create the middle of his or her story, creating suspense while, at the same time, disguising the fact that the end of the story will be based upon the opposite of the continuum with which the narrative began.

Let’s look at one additional example. The novel Insomnia is based upon the extremes of sleeplessness (insomnia) and eternal rest (death). At the story’s outset (and throughout the rest of the narrative, until the end), the protagonist is unable to sleep. He begins to see things from another dimension, and discovers that beings from this alternate universe seek to kill a woman; by sacrificing himself, he prevents the woman from being killed. The story that started with his inability to sleep ends with his death, or eternal rest. Once again, a duality (insomnia/death, in the sense of eternal rest) is used to structure one of King’s narratives, the middle of which is taken up by the conflict between two adversaries from the alternate dimension, who vie for the woman’s life.

It seems odd that a novel--especially a novel as long and seemingly complex as King’s--could be based upon such a simple--indeed, simplistic--duality of extremes or opposites, but Under the Dome, Desperation, and Insomnia show, as do several other of King’s books, that such is the case.

Finally, Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking illustrates the second alternative method of beginning and ending a novel to that which Poe suggests in “The Philosophy of Composition.” I have mentioned this technique in a previous post, calling it the bait-and-switch approach. The writer suggests that a story will end in a particular fashion, but, using situational irony, surprises the reader by ending the narrative in a different, unexpected, but appropriate fashion. Koontz suggests that the bizarre doings in The Taking are due to a reverse-terraforming of the planet Earth by invading extraterrestrials who seek to make the hostile Earth habitable for their fellow aliens. Instead, the extraterrestrials turn out to be Satan and his angels.

Although Poe’s prescription for writing horror stories (plot backward from the end to the beginning so as to maximize the narrative’s emotional effect) is a superior method of storytelling, the ones exemplified in several of the works of King, such as Under the Dome, Desperation, and Insomnia, and the one that Koontz’s fiction, including The Taking, illustrate, are alternatives that can work and are much less demanding upon the writer than Poe’s approach.


lazlo azavaar said...

Glad to see you back, Gary. Excellent post, as usual. I've read interviews with King where he states his dislike for the plotting-from-the-end method. He says he starts from a situational idea and lets the story unfold on it's own. He believes the only time a reader is truly surprised by what happens, is when the writer is truly surprised. It seems to work for him. For my own, admittedly rank amateurish, writing; I find I need a basic idea of where I'm going, or I end up going in circles.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Glad you liked the post, Lazlo. I also did one on H. P. Lovecraft's approach to plotting; it's in the archives somewhere. Some scholars believe that Poe stretched the truth in describing his "philosophy of composition," although others believe that it is an honest and workable approach. I tend to write more like Mark Twain (or Stephen King), basing my work on a general idea that I expand upon as I write, although this approach (if it can be called such) does sometimes lead to dead ends and other difficulties. (C. S. Lewis said he wrote based upon visual images that occurred to him.) I don't see King's plots as surprising as he himself appears to think them, as my post suggests, but I enjoy his fiction for several other reasons, not one of the least of which is his skill in creating towns full of interesting and believable characters. Like most prolific writers, a lot of what he's written is not very good, but that which is good is superb, and he's usually entertaining.

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.

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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