Writing Something Horrifying in Three Steps

[A different version of this appeared on Timothy Bateson’s blog in Oct 2019.]

Psychologists and philosophers debate “horror” as a concept. Authors have it much easier. They want to make their readers uncomfortable, nervous. They want to give readers chills. They want readers to turn on all the lights, to check locks on the doors, to tuck their feet up under themselves so nothing can grab them from below, to check under the bed before getting under the covers, to look in their closets, to look at their loved ones suspiciously.

Most people, reading the above, will travel a psycho-emotive path from casual interest to mild anxiety. The psycho-emotive path occurs in the above due to progressive word choice – easier, uncomfortable, nervous, chills – followed by a series of recognizable anxiety behaviors – turn on lights, check locks, tuck feet, check under the bed, look in closets – and then we have the capper, the threat of personal betrayal – looking at their loved ones suspiciously.

Readers shouldn’t be able to recognize their growing anxiety. If they do, they’re paying attention to themselves, not the story, meaning the story isn’t fully engaging them. You want your readers concerned about what happens next in the story, not that they’re uncomfortable reading it.

Build Discomfort Slowly


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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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Relatability

To me, the key to keeping readers focused on your story is relatability (yes, I know. If you’re reading my world-building posts, you’re shocked). A story is relatable when the reader can imagine themselves in the story, meaning the reader accepts what happens in the story as something that could happen to them, meaning it’s familiar, and that brings us back to grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

At this point, we revert to basic psychology; How do people relate to things? Turns out there are four basic ways:

  1. they’re familiar with a place (Setting)
  2. they’re familiar with what’s happening (Plot)
  3. they’re familiar with the people involved (Character)
  4. they’re familiar with what’s being said (Language)

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World-Building – Moving from Mundane to Fantastic Settings

When asked, “How do characters move from mundane to fantastic settings?” the correct answer is:

  1. The take the 45st L, get off at the first stop, then go left at the bottom of the stairs.
  2. By grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

In the Harry Potter Universe, children get to Hogwarts from Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross station. Aside from people not noticing a young person with a tram of luggage and a caged owl on top or that youngster and all their belongings suddenly disappearing into a brick pillar, we’re back to the familiar in the unfamiliar mentioned in World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters.

It’s worth noting that Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 is a representation of the starting point for every hero on every hero’s journey regardless of culture or mythology: We enter the fantastic via the mundane. The invitation to the mythic must be accepted or there is no journey and the invitation must be accepted in front of others – Muggles – who can’t accept or refuse to accept it. Usually there’s a mentor/guide/guardian/herald/… someone to help the young adventurer on. Harry Potter’s Mrs. Weasley told him how to “enter”, ie, pass the first challenge.

The message here is that entry into the fantastic is always around us, is everywhere, is waiting for us to become aware. Consider Keith Jarrett’s preface to his album Treasure Island:

The treasure has always been there
It is not hidden
But is only where certain people would look
At all
Thus it remains a secret to the rest
And to solace themselves
They say it’s hidden
Or buried
To still their invading thoughts.

Some are calm and content
Or at peace, in their words

Some are stirred and cloudy
But they are improving their vision

Of the island
Of themselves

I make use of these “we must see the magic for it to exist” concepts myself in my short story The Magic Tassels: A shaman lives in a village and is known for the magic tassels he wears on his wrists. Different villages come and ask what the tassels are for and he asks them, “What do you think?” Everyone tells a magic story about them save three old women who mock him. Later the village is threatened and everyone will die. The villagers come to the shaman for help and his tassels turn into the magic each saw, which saves them.

Except for the three old women. When they ask him to save them he answers, “No, the only magic in my tassels is that which others put there. All the magic I gave others they already had. I merely reminded them of the magic within them. You saw nothing in my tassels, so there’s nothing I can give you. There is no magic in you for me to remind you.”


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The Kite

[A previous version of this story can be found at Shane and Tyler]

The Kite

 
I parked in the lot adjacent to the hillside field, its slight slope gently amplifying winds and making it easier to get kites aloft. Everybody used the park. The city built ballfields and a playground on the other side of the parking lot and a big gazebo in the middle of the field. A friend caught one of my kites’ lines in the gazebo’s roof once and it took some good flying to set it free.

I could hear the cheers and catcalls from people in the ballfields — must have been some exciting games going on — and laughter and chatter from families on the playground. People must have parked on the far side of the ballfields because the hillside lot was practically empty.

An empty parking lot is one of the things I look for, a good sign, it means the field will be open, plenty of room to run out my lines and fly a kite or two between the gazebo and the street. A good wind rustled the trees high up, their tops dusting the sky. I’d already chosen my SkyDancer — a half moon, rainbow kite with two one-hundred foot long rainbow colored tails — as the kite to fly. I walked down the field carrying it, its tails, lines and two ground pegs in my hands.

A man and boy had a little area set up on my right, between the gazebo and the parking lot. Not a problem, still plenty of room. A t-ball stand stood beside them, a whiffle ball rested on top, a broad, plastic yellow bat and several more balls lay on the ground next to it. The boy, a toddler based on his size, slightly awkward movements and shrieks of joy, threw the balls back and forth to no one. He’d throw one, go get it and throw it back to where he started then repeat the process over and over again.

The man knelt on the ground, his eyes focused and his hands busy. It looked like he was rigging up a single line delta. I thought that a small, single-line delta would be more work than it would be worth — general kiting rule: the smaller the kite, the stronger the wind — but said nothing. I had the day off and wanted some time to myself.

They got their delta up. Then down. Then not quite up, then definitely down. Then down and down and still down.

But the man wouldn’t give up. He’d get the kite up and he’d hold the line with the boy and let the boy take the line and the kite would come down and he’d go to work sending it back up.

And on one attempt, the boy called out, “I love you, Daddy!” and the man called back, “I love you, too, Son!”

I’d just finished driving my ground pegs into the earth and had walked out my lines, my SkyDancer still in its pack along with its tails, and something told me to offer them my Big Sled. The Big Sled is actually a fairly small, black, red, and white parafoil kite. I got it long ago. A local kite store was going out of business, I got there their last day, there wasn’t much left and I refused to go home empty handed. It’s more a kid’s kite than something an adult would fly, but I have close to one-hundred kites, kites for all levels of skill, all sizes of flyers, all types of wind and I love all kites. One more would round out the bunch so I got it.

I went back to my car and got out the Big Sled.

The father was kneeling again, the delta in front of him as he adjusted the harness. I walked towards him. “Sir, excuse me, sir?”

He looked up.

I unfurled the kite. “This’ll be much easier to fly. It’ll catch the wind better and ride high on top of the wind.”

He was hesitant. “That looks like a professional kite.”

I laughed. “I’d never call myself a professional.”

He offered me his hand. “I’m Shane.” He had broad, flat palms. Thick fingers, calloused. A welcoming grip. A practical smile, open and evaluating at the same time. More laugh lines than frowns and deep brown eyes that took in all of you without leaving your face. He stood wide and solid with hair the color of his eyes and ruffling in the wind where it stuck out from under his green baseball cap. I took him to be a skilled laborer, someone both comfortable with himself and with tools in his hands, someone to whom making was automatic, without thought. He didn’t smell of resins or wires. Doors and walls, I decided. Not cars, there was no grease or grime under his nails or etched in his palms and a whiff of wood welcomed me as he moved. Not tanned, so a finish carpenter, someone who works inside, not someone who frames and builds houses. Someone who uses his blades as a painter uses his brushes.

“That’s Tyler. Say hello, Tyler.”

Tyler, a cherub as only little boys can be cherubs, called out “Hello!” Thin but healthy, both well and goodly fed, with clear eyes and a trust because he’s a little boy and everyone should love him, because that’s all he’s known is love of family and friends and, it seemed, a mirror that would grow into his father’s easy good looks.

He stood beside us comfortably, neither anxious nor wary, following his father’s focus on my hands, watching me stringing the line, his eyes full of joy and his father’s smile echoed on his toddler’s face.

I attached the line and handed Shane the line hoop. “It’s going to have a little pull, so hold the line with Tyler. Let him get a feel for how much pull it’ll have so he can brace himself for it.”

The father looked me in the eye, confused.

“Enjoy yourself. Have a good time.”

I went back to the SkyDancer and lines, strung it up and, as is my habit, talked to the kite and the wind. They rewarded me with some great flying and LineSong — the wind pulls the kite, the lines tighten, the wind vibrates the string like a bow crossing a violin. You hear the lines sing.

LineSong. It’s the wind letting you know it’s having fun, too, me thinks.

I flew for about an hour, maybe a little less. Every now and again I’d hear Shane and Tyler laugh from the other side of the gazebo. I’d glance every so often and see the Big Sled high in the sky, swooping and swirling as the winds whirled it about.

I told the SkyDancer and Wind, “One more flight, girl. Come on down when you’re ready and we can pack up and go home.”

We had one more glorious flight. Some people had gathered so I had the SkyDancer live up to its name and perform a little ballet. The wind, as promised, grew tired, which was fine because I was, too. I brought the SkyDancer down and began untacking the lines.

Shane and Tyler came up to me. Shane had the kite against his chest, the line hoop and line in hand. “Thank you, Joseph. That was great. Tyler and I really appreciate your letting us fly your kite.”

“Did you have a good time, Tyler? Did you have fun?”

“Yes!”

I smiled at Tyler. “Keep the kite. It’s a gift.”

Shane shook his head. “We can’t do that.”

“You and Tyler gave me a gift when I walked onto this field.”

“We did?”

“Tyler called out ‘I love you, Dad,’ and you called back, ‘I love you, too, Son.’ That’s a gift. Please. Take the kite as my thank you for that gift.”

Shane slowly shook his head, not quite believing. “Are you sure?”

I stood. “Yes, and here’s the catch.”

He pulled his head back a bit.

“Whenever you and Tyler don’t want to fly kites any more, or when you think it’s time, you pass it on to the next father and son, you give it to them as a gift because they gave something to you as a gift.”

Shane nodded slowly. “Okay. We can do that.”

“Pass it on. Pay it forward. That’s how it works.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much for this gift.”

“Thank you. Have a good day. Have a good life.”

They walked away and stopped. Tyler started running towards me and Shane called him back. They huddled for a moment then both came up to me. “Tyler has something for you.”

Tyler ran up to me and gave me a big hug. “Thank you for the kite, Joseph!”

I put my arms around him, held his precious little body next to mine. “Oh, thank you, Tyler. You’re the man, Tyler, you’re the man!”


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