I watched a movie the other day which I won’t name. Almost everything about it was great. The actors were good, the music was awesome, the story was intriguing. The directing was okay – nothing special, but more than enough to execute what might have been a great horror film.

            So what was the problem?

            Well, I don’t want to make a blanket statement like: the main characters weren’t believable. Because they kinda were believable – just not in a good way. And they were also developed, in that they all had unique personalities and weren’t cardboard cut-outs or anything like that.

            My gripe was more specific: the characters were a bunch of helpless victims.

            The structure of the ‘scary’ scenes tended to go the same way each time: the monster did something creepy, and the main characters were creeped out. Then the monster did something scary, and the characters were scared. Then the monster jumped out and did something horrifying… and the main characters quailed in a corner, screaming in a suitably horrified manner.

            This is not the kind of thing that makes me root for the protagonists. It’s more the kind of thing that makes me hope the protagonists dies horribly.

            This is also a good time to point out one of the many important differences between fiction and real life. While the reactions of the characters might have been ‘realistic’ in the sense that ‘real’ people would have acted that way in response to a horrifying monster, realism does not necessarily make a good story. One of the main reasons people read fiction is in fact to get away from reality. After all, no one likes to read dialogue filled with non-sequiters, ums and uhs, and mundane complaints, even though much of real-life dialogue consists of these things. Similarly, people are not interested in reading about (or watching) victims.

The argument against giving your characters a spine in a horror novel is that if you go too far with it, you end up writing an action or a thriller instead of a horror. See, if the main character is too competent, too much of a hero, then you as the reader can’t muster up any fear for them. Imagine trying to be scared on behalf of the terminator. There’s no horror movie you could put him in, right? He’s just too good. Same for James Bond, or Jason Bourne.

            Except… not really. You can put a capable protagonist in a horror story and still make it compelling, and the way you do it is simple: you make the antagonist (the monster) a thousand times more capable. If your hero is smart, the villain is a genius. Whatever power your hero has, the villain has more, plus better resources and further reach.

            Take the original Alien movie. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley wasn’t any kind of victim. She was about as competent as anyone can be – it’s just that the Alien was still a bigger threat. Despite her abilities, Ripley was the underdog, and that’s what makes the battle so compelling.

            Now, allow me to qualify this directive: Just because the characters in a horror story should be capable does not mean that they all need to be ass-kicking action heroes like Ripley or the terminator. There are many dimensions along which a character might be capable. Perhaps they’re incredibly smart, or brave, or driven toward their goal. Or perhaps they just have a very specific set of skills…

            My favourite example of this from recent times can be found in the movie Bone Tomahawk. Every one of the main characters in that story is highly competent, each in their own unique way. But the movie maintains its ‘horror’ element because the cave-people these characters face are so terrifyingly brutal. The result is an incredibly suspenseful horror, steeped in dread, populated by characters that are genuinely sympathetic and emphatically NOT victims.

If I find myself writing weak or helpless characters, it’s often because I haven’t made my ‘monster’ formidable enough. I should also add that I’m only using the word monster as a stand in, since the horror genre can have any number of things that threaten the protagonist.

The rule still applies, however. Some examples of monster-less horror that work well are The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both of which utilise an undefined ‘evil’ rather than a flesh and blood monster. And in both cases, it is not the weakness of the protagonists that facilitate the horror, it is the terrible power of that evil.

Titles are often skipped over by writers, even by the otherwise skilled and successful. One of the most common tendencies, and a pet hate of mine, is to have a two word title in which the first word is ‘the’. In horror, I think the intended affect is to create a sense of ominous foreboding – for example, a haunted house story titled ‘The House.’ Others might be ‘The Doll’, ‘The Haunting’, ‘The Dead’. I hesitate to criticise Adam Nevill’s latest book, which I loved, but I can’t help but feel that ‘The Reddening’ is not the best title. One of the problems with this habit is that pretty soon everything you do is titled ‘The…’ And your bibliography starts to look like a damn shopping list.

            To combat this, when I first started writing short stories I would simply omit the ‘The’. But looking back, the results weren’t much better: ‘Monster’, ‘Other’, ‘Demon’ were a few of my less imaginative ones. I improved slightly by adding a second word, but still ended up with boring titles like: ‘Quiet Night’, ‘Room for Thought’, and ‘Little Bites’. Still, I would argue, better than: ‘The Quiet Night’ etc.

            My next stroke of genius was to say: hey, if adding one word slightly improved it, what if I added even more words?. I noticed that some of my favourite titles had a lot of words in them. The afore mentioned Adam Nevill had a short story collection (also amazing, by the way) titled ‘Some Will Not Sleep’. Using more words, I figured, forced one to be more creative, and offered more chances for interesting combinations and sentence structures.

            Using this method, my titles improved again, and my most recent stories have the best titles to date, in my opinion: ‘Screams for Stargirl,’ is one I’m proud of, as is the feature story of my upcoming collection: ‘Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths’.

            As much as I like those, I think there is still something lacking. I mean, a story’s title should be more than just an interesting collection of words that sounds cool and is related to the content, right? The ideal title, in my mind, as well as being all those things, should also relate directly to the central theme of the story. The best example of this that I’ve come across is one of the greatest horror/thriller stories ever written, even though it regrettably begins with the word ‘The’ (exceptions to every rule, never forget): The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is it an interesting and cool sounding title, but it directly relates to the internal struggle of the book’s protagonist, Clarice Starling, and her desire to silence the screaming lambs of her childhood.

And that brings me to the other quality I think a good title should have: it should read differently before versus after you’ve actually read the story. Stephen King once said that a good book is such that you should be able to read it at least twice and get something different from it each time. A title should follow that directive, too. The Silence of the Lambs is a good title before you read it, but it is an even better title afterward, for different reasons.

But before you start getting the idea that there is a sliding scale from ‘bad title’ to ‘good title’ like the one I’ve outlined, let me draw your attention to the book ‘Clown in a Cornfield’.

It would be a mistake to give that book a more ‘sophisticated’ title. Like, imagine if it was called: ‘Field of the Painted Face’ or something similar. It sounds kinda creepy, sure. More ominous. But the actual book ‘Clown in a Cornfield’ is about (guess) a fucking clown killing some people in a cornfield – it’s not pretending to be some kind of ‘high’ literary fiction, so there’s no point misleading anyone. You read that title and you know you’re in for a fun ride (and you are).

You need to consider what message you send with the title. Not only does the ideal title convey the central theme of the story, but it also indicates the genre in more subtle ways than you would guess. ‘Clown in a Cornfield’ indicates horror clearly enough, but it also indicates a certain kind of horror. It indicates a kind of light-hearted, dark-humoured horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  

Ultimately, the information coded into the title of your work amounts to this: The genre, the style, the seriousness or lack thereof, the atmosphere, the underlying theme, and the voice of the author.

Simple, right?

Sometimes, writing a book, things slow down to the pace of a slug in tar. You miss a few days of writing, your plot hits a roadblock, and suddenly you can’t see a way forward. Never mind, you say, I’ll take a few days to think about it. I’ll plot and storyboard, I’ll meditate on it, I’ll write out all the character motivations and see where they lead.

Sometimes you find yourself writing something that reads flat and dead, like a fish turning white and flaking in the sun. It’s hard to tell the characters apart, and the scenes seem to have lost their colour and urgency. When you sit down to write it feels like a chore, getting the story from A to B in a logical and necessary manner. You dread writing and wonder where your originality has gone.

Maybe you’re burning out? Maybe you should take a couple of weeks off, or a month, and travel? See or do something knew? Surely the inspiration will return to you, then? Or if you go for long walks and turn your mind to the story – as Charles Dickens so famously did for twenty miles at a stretch – you’ll see the way forward?

I wallowed in a mire of uninspired greyness for some time a few months ago, trying to figure out what had happened to the version of me in 2018, when I wrote my last novel. It seemed every day I’d wake up full of excitement and ideas stretching my skull to breaking point. Maybe it was how much sleep I was getting? No, in fact I was sleep deprived, if anything. Maybe that was it? No, that didn’t help. Going on walks, staring at blank walls, none of the things I was doing seemed to work.

And then, this great realisation: back then, I wasn’t writing every day because I had so many good ideas… I had so many good ideas because I was writing every day.

I had committed the cardinal sin: I had forgotten about Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The central message, if you haven’t read it, is this: if you build it, they will come.

So I started writing the next book, without only the bare shreds of an idea, knowing that the initial scenes I was writing were not that good and would have to be discarded later. But still I wrote, and before I knew it I had an idea. The first two chapters weren’t interesting at all – it was the third chapter where I should really start. And Character A would be so much better if I just wrote him a little different… and wouldn’t it be cool if…

And I was off to the races. All it took was a few days of putting down words, writing a scene, deleting it and trying again, writing another point of view, and suddenly the ideas were flowing like they always had. Inspiration flowed forth like a flood after a long drought.

If you build it, they will come.

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