Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Hint: Let the Door Swing Shut

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, visited our local writers’ group via Skype this month. She’s one of the nation’s most successful and respected YA and children’s authors, so we were grateful for the opportunity to chat with her. One of her many great responses to our questions included:
“It’s okay to pull back... You can just let the door swing shut.”
She referred specifically to sexual abuse in YA books, but I think we can apply this to horror, mysteries and thrillers as well: You can just let the door swing shut.
Essentially, this lets us put the gore on the back burner and concentrate on story and character. It sounds elementary, but I’ve tried to read a lot of work recently by writers who clearly don’t get it. Couldn’t finish the stuff. I’ve been spoiled by good horror, and I can’t go back.
Anyway, it’s not a reactionary idea. I’m not suggesting that we can or should return to simpler, less gory work. I’m saying it’s okay to sweep the gory details off your workbench so you can focus on what’s really scary: your characters in trouble.
Those characters teach your readers to be scared. A tightly integrated character whose actions conform to the internal logic of your work can have your readers terrified of a shoebox. Flat, weak characters, on the other hand...well, we've all read it.
There are many benefits to letting the door swing shut:
1) It puts the reader’s imagination to work. Maybe they’re scarier people than you are. Let them fill in the gaps, as long as you’re ready to deliver in the long haul (see #3).
2) Hints of gore, hints of greater horror behind that door, can draw your reader forward. This is called suspense. I spell it out because many writers whose work I’ve tried to read recently seem unfamiliar with the concept. If you know how to build suspense, you are among the new elite.
3) You can always add it in later…when it will count. Consider gore like profanity and use it sparingly for maximum impact. REMEMBER: If your story has hints of gore, you have to pay off. You have to write the abattoir, it has to be integral to the plot, and it has to be a direct or indirect threat to your protagonist. And then you have to twist the plot to scare your reader even more because in the long run, mere gore does not suffice.
 4) Postponing the gore to put your readers’ imaginations to work, build suspense and really make that gore count has another advantage: it takes you a little bit above the fray. There are a lot of young writers out there who were raised on torture porn. You couldn’t compete with them if you tried. You can’t outsplatter splatterpunk; it’s been more than two decades since Clive Barker wrote The Hellbound Heart, and that train has long since left the station. You can’t out-CSI CSI; the autopsy scene has lost its shock value (unless the coroner finds … a bassoon!). Instead, you can luxuriate in the knowledge that when your well-crafted story requires gore, you’ll fall back on years of your own writing discipline to give it exactly the nasty touch it needs to keep your readers turning those pages.
In the meantime, do yourself a favor. Read the classics at Danse Macabre this month, and if you don’t own The Bride of Frankenstein, buy yourself a copy. You’ll be glad you did.
Happy Halloween!
James Kendley has written and edited professionally for more than 30 years. By day, he is an educational software content wrangler. By night, he is senior editor of Danse Macabre , Nevada’s first and finest online litmag. Reach him at . Visit Danse Macabre by clicking here.
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  1. Excellent post, James. I have always loved Hitchcock's work for his ability to build suspense and keep most of the gore off the screen. Would love for love scenes to be primarily off screen, too.

  2. I ran from horror as a teen having to read Edgar Allen Poe for lit class. I'm just too sensitive, even without written gore. But I do appreciate the fine art involved. Eeeek! Perfect post for Day of the Dead! Thanks for visiting us.

  3. Now that's an interesting phrase: 'let the door swing shut' ... kinda reminds me of what I used to hear a lot as a kid, followed by, '... and don't let it hit you in the keaster.'

  4. Let the reader's mind run riot and your pen won't have to. Excellent advice.

  5. There are so many great films that follow this advice - the capacity of writing to 'show everything' really can be a disadvantage.

  6. I agree that the anticipation of something bad happening can heighten the tension and make a book that much more enjoyable.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. The imagination can put in so much more detail than the written word. If you set the scene, you don't need explicit descriptions. The shower scene in Psycho was terrifying, even though no actual violence was shown (watch carefullly; you never see contact with the knife or spurting blood). Contrast with the modern "slasher" film, which can actually be boring by comparison. Absolutely, let the door swing shut!

  8. Good this is really nice cool post!

  9. I even told my friends to take a look at your blog and in fact your blog is already bookmarked on my computer.

  10. Thanks for contributing this post, James! Good, solid advice. I too get a lot of manuscripts in the "suspense" genre that are not suspenseful in the least, when with a command of structure and a dusting of craft, all can be solved.


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