The Story Workshop
After attending SlungLow’s arts workshops in Leeds last week I promised to put my notes online, so here is the essence of what I said – the idea was to inspire the young groups to write a scary story.
This is a crash course with a specific aim; finding a practical way to write something that pleases you and disturbs your readers. First I want to address an age-old issue. Can you be taught writing or is it something you’re born with?
There should be some obvious signs of interest in you. Ask yourself these questions; did you read and write short stories as a child? Do you read a lot now? Are you curious about the world? Love books, words, love a good story? Have you ever filled a notebook for the fun of it? Kept a diary and finished it? Written for no reason other than to put down an idea? Did you work it all the way through to the end? Become fascinated by a writer? Or a book, a story – a sentence? Do you like all kinds of stories? Do you ask yourself questions about them? Do you cut out newspaper articles? Are you interested in the lives of others? Do you ask questions of strangers?
I hope the answer to many of these questions is yes. Now I want to get you thinking about the process.
Bad stories get published; it’s a shock, but they appear regularly in magazines, paperbacks, small press. And good stories are often overlooked. The system is not a meritocracy – if an editor somewhere sees an audience for a terrible book, it will be published. You don’t write to please the reader, you write to please yourself and a publisher, who will present your book in an acquisitions meeting and promote you.
What do you hope to achieve? If you want to try and produce a tightly contained, polished piece of work that lasts, you have to accept that it may never see the light of day. The world is not waiting for you to finish your tale. And if you’re writing fiction, you cannot sell an idea. It must be turned into something complete. A finished story.
That’s the bad news. Now let’s bust a couple of myths.
You don’t have to write about what you know. A writer called HRF Keating had written a decade’s worth of very successful Inspector Ghote novels before he ever visited India, where the books are set. Once he visited the country his books suffered. Moral; you can write what you don’t know, but you must be passionate about it.
And I want you to forget your feelings for now and concentrate on the story. Feelings, as Antonia Byatt noted, ruin short stories. Detailed descriptions of emotional states don’t take the place of a good story well told. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because it will show in the writing.
It’s important to relax. I can tell when someone has attended a writing course and is trying to write something profound and important. We’re not all the same and you can make no assumptions about the reader. There are three factors in any art. The creator, the work and the public. No two factors can operate without the third.
In a short story you can afford to go crazy. You can make the main character hateful, alien to yourself. You can make the hero a dinosaur if you want. Don’t be afraid. Make lots of mistakes, but make sure you finish what you started, and keep going through the bit where you don’t think it’s any good. Don’t worry about going off track. Often we do that because it’s where the story leads us, where it starts to get interesting.
What does a short story need to do?
Well, it doesn’t have to teach or explain. So there go all those classes which talk about story arcs, hero’s journeys, three-act plots. It can do many things, but first it needs to surprise and entertain and have a point. It needs to linger in the mind. We’re going to concentrate on the scary story.
What surprises us most? The truth. Someone once said that the details of other people’s private lives would horrify you. What if you’re writing a story set in space, or on another world? It still needs an element that rings true; recognisable human emotion. Don’t copy from TV, make it something that touches you, something a person said that stuck, something you saw on the way to work. Can you tell the truth when you’re writing a story where your hero is a bathmat? Yes, if it behaves like your worst relative.
Here’s an opening line from John Collier’s ‘The Devil George And Rosie’ It starts ‘There was a young man who was invariably spurned by the girls, not because he smelt at all bad but because he happened to be as ugly as a monkey.’ You want to read on, don’t you?
So, the aims. To entertain. To surprise. To reveal a truth. To touch the reader.
The secret – and I think it is a secret, because no-one talks about it, is to be so relaxed that at first you don’t care how the story turns out. You’ll write badly at the start – we all do. But it will hopefully get better. So pick a single aim for your story. You want to frighten the reader.
Will your story feature a crime? Will it be supernatural? Crime stories combine easily with the supernatural; theoretically they shouldn’t because they have rigid rules, and supernatural stories set out to break rules. The supernatural is inexplicable. Crime novels explain.
But we’re not rational people. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories are drenched in an atmosphere of supernatural dread. Sherlock Holmes thrives on the seemingly impossible, and even though explanations are provided, the solutions don’t make us completely comfortable. We remember the hound of the Baskervilles as a supernatural creature, no matter how much we are told otherwise.
The opening circumstances of a crime are always remembered better than the solution. Why else would the Marie Celeste, the Bermuda Triangle and Madeline McAnn fascinate so? We ask ourselves ‘How could this happen?’ Surely some greater evil hangs over the participants? Adding an explanation removes fear. We explain away the strangeness.
If we look to writers like HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling, we find tales that combine the rational and the irrational in perfect balance. There’s a Kipling tale about a man who grinds a cigarette stub out on a statue of Hanuman. He’s attacked by a leprous beggar and contracts an illness, but the story is complicated by leper’s supernatural power to remove the curse.
‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ by MR James tells of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. When it’s blown, it unleashes a supernatural force that terrorizes its discoverer. What does this force look like? It looks like a man some way off in the distance, always walking toward you, always getting nearer, like an image from a nightmare. How does it turn out? That’s not important – it’s the image that stays with you.
Many new writers want a big idea, but worry that they’ve all been done. The first mistake is to even try to think of a big idea, because they’re just scenarios. Boy meets girl. Aliens attack earth. House has a ghost. Short stories are rarely created in this way. The idea will emerge from the scenario. In Boy Meets Girl, let’s say that Boy and Girl are such opposites that they can’t stand each other, but they’re working together inside a pantomime horse. You won’t reinvent the wheel and nobody expects you to come up with everything fully formed – it’s a process, A to B to C, and each stage adds something new and fresh. At the end, you’ll look back and see the idea is there, and that hopefully the theme has emerged.
Sometimes it’s hard to spot where the idea is. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a creepy tale called ‘The Bingo Master’, and if I tell you that the idea is about a young woman winning at bingo, you’d not be interested. But the woman is desperately lonely and from a small town, the bingo master is handsome and charming, and he must meet her to give her her prize.
So the idea is to describe a budding romance? No – because the bingo master leads her on, then spurns her advances and makes her feel ashamed; she has misread the signs; she thought he was interested in her.
So is the idea about how you can be mistaken in love? No, because in her haste to leave his room, the young woman leaves with her prize cheque unsigned. The bingo master manipulated the situation to shame the woman and keep the money – he is a con-man. So the idea is actually about a girl whose fragile confidence is destroyed. But you can’t get there without thinking the process through. Is it a frightening story? Yes, because you become frightened for her.
The shape of the story is built by the aim, the scenario, the characters, the plot, the style – and through them the idea emerges. The danger is that by not constructing a short story this way around, by starting with what you want to get across, you end up with something plodding and manipulative, because you’ll have to keep dragging at your characters to get them back on track. Stories and films about fascism, race, politics and other big issues often end up doing this because they don’t unfold in a natural progression – they start with the aim and the idea ruins the characters.
So, having established the story’s aims – to entertain, to surprise, to reveal a truth, to touch and disturb the reader – we should go to the scenario, which runs concurrently with plot and character.
The SF writer J G Ballard wrote a scenario for ‘Concrete Island’: a man crashes his car off a motorway and survives in the long grass at its base, eating the food thrown from car windows. Here he meets others who live like this. It tells you nothing of what the man is like, or what will happen to him. Ballard used the idea to explore our alienation in modern society. But he could have used it to explore the man’s humanity, or he could have turned it into a horror story. The scenario allowed him to take it in any direction he wanted,
I wrote a story called ‘Starless’ for my anthology ‘Old Devil Moon’. The scenario: Two men are caught up in the 7/7 London bombings. The characters: Both hate their existing lives. The plot: They switch identities. To my mind, these three elements are dependent on one another. But many courses will teach you that you don’t need all three. They’ll say you can describe a sunny morning in the countryside, or the anger you feel from becoming disillusioned with the world – but those aren’t stories, they’re simply moods. Mood is essential, but it’s the side order that comes along to flavour the main course.
So pick a scenario. Two strange women meet on a beach. A pair of schoolboys play a cruel trick on an old man. An African girl from a small village arrives in a big city for the first time. An idiot tries to impress a sophisticated woman at a party. Whatever you come up with, stay with it to the end.
Tennessee Williams said ‘I don’t want realism. I want magic…I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be true.’ So your scenario can be as grand as you like, or as small. Tiny moments can reveal great truths. Sometimes it’s fun to be big. The important thing is to keep the opening simple and clear. I read a story about a man who discovers a murder in the countryside. But the thing I remember is a moment before something bad happens. A fat raindrop the size of an old coin smacks onto his car bonnet, making him jump. We’ve all jumped at something silly. That raindrop is enough to suggest that something bad is about to happen.
Short stories don’t have time to waste, and they should be fun to read. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’, a sailor buys a genii who comes with a warning; he must be sold for less than he was paid for, or the sailor will have to take his place – but it’s impossible to sell the bottle for less because the hero bought it with the smallest coin in the realm. So he sails to a country which has even smaller coins.
Stories are more enjoyable when the main character has a terrible time. Panic breeds action, and action gives you pace – when I read a short story in which a lonely woman stares out of a window thinking about her life my heart sinks, because I know we are off to a slow start and we only have a few pages. It’s often the case that the reader is ahead of the writer, thinking about the likely outcome of the tale, playing over all the possibilities – and how awful for the writer if the reader has already thought about where he’s going and dismissed it as boring?
Good plots satisfy immensely; For this reason Roald Dahl is often cited as the perfect short story writer, but he’s only one of many. Dahl is easy and accessible, and shares a common understanding of people. He’s also easy to read; no crime, this – for some reason, certain writers go out of their way to be unreadable in short form. I’ve been guilty myself. I once wrote a story in futuristic phonetic teen slang – I’ve never met anyone who’s read it.
Inspiration for a plot can come, of course, from newspaper reports, friends, the internet, anywhere, but often they’re rarely enough on their own.
We all have very different ideas about what frightens us. A few years ago I judged a competition in which we asked first-time writers to produce a piece of fiction about something that genuinely scares them. If you’re going to scare someone, it’s a good idea to list the things that scare you. Fears change. If you could go back in time and ask your grandparents what scared them, they might have said the war. Ghosts and vampires and murderers and the dark. Now if you ask a teenager they may say they have a fear of being not liked. Which is why I wrote a story called ‘Hated’, in which a man has a curse placed on him that makes everybody hate him. He’s used to being liked and can’t handle this, so he asks for the curse to be lifted and for everyone to love him. He gets his wish. He dies. And at his funeral of course everybody says nice things about him.
Fifty years ago our list of fears might also have included fear of poverty, starvation, darkness, old houses. But now, we see that the modern list included body dysmorphia, loss of control, peer hatred, disrespect, sickness, ageing, cruelty.
Having grown up a shy and timid boy, I feared the dark at the top of the stairs more than any idea of ageing, and the concept of peer hatred didn’t exist. The modern list would have meant very little to the nine year-old me. Fears change with the times, but the root cause is fundamentally constant. We fear pain, death, disrespect.
However, over the past 30 years something changed about the nature of genre fiction; its barriers were removed. Many of us first discovered creepy stories as teenagers. Originally, disturbing stories were specifically not for the young. They were forbidden fruit, revolving around unsettling and often unspoken concepts, and were rarely built on shock effects. Rather, they unsettled by encouraging the exploration of ideas. Obviously there were straightforward classical-minded ghost tales from the likes of MR James and Rudyard Kipling, but there were also many stories that preyed upon the mind long after the last sentence was read. Most of our adult lives are spent trying to get comfortable. And along came stories that upset us.
William Sansom wrote ‘The Long Sheet’, in which captives are required to wring out a great wet sheet with their hands, and the process is described in flesh-smarting detail. Nor can the sheet ever be completely dried, because fresh moisture is constantly sprayed on it. It’s a simple image that stays with you.
And we had Dino Buzzati, whose stories have the grim inevitability of an infinite downward spiral, as roads never end, grand houses gradually collapse, rivers flood, good people starve, revolutions occur and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that anyone can do about it.
It will come as no surprise that these two authors are out of print while MR James is constantly republished. I find James’s tales filled with comforting nostalgia, not that disturbing, and the same goes for HP Lovecraft, whose tales of nameless horror I have never truly enjoyed. I prefer Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose final haunting image in the story ‘Three Miles Up’ stayed with me for years and shows her terrific storytelling strength. In it, two friends take a barge up a river that keeps getting emptier and creepier, without end. Later this year I’ll be publishing my 14th collection, called ‘Frightening’ In it there’s a story called ‘The Baby’. Which is similarly simple. A girl meets a man in a pub and gets pregnant. When she tries to get rid of the baby, it refuses to go.
If there’s one piece of advice accepted by almost every short story writer, it’s that part of what is displayed should remain hidden. And perhaps that is what we’ve lost, because now everyone tells everyone else everything. There’s no information we can’t get hold of. What is there left to hide? What is unthinkable? But if you want to write a story about an evil corporation pursuing someone it had better have a new twist to it.
Once, volumes of uncanny tales could be found in the homes of everyone who enjoyed popular fiction. Now it’s a specialist industry practiced for little or no reward by and for those who are still passionate about strange stories. So you need to figure out what unsettles you. And I’d like you to pick something real, not a vampire or a werewolf but some everyday thing, a dark alley in your neighbourhood, a man who hangs around a shop, a noise you hear in the night. Here’s something that frightens me; Conformity. Everyone suddenly thinking the same way. That’s why ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ works so brilliantly A race of aliens will take you over if you fall asleep, so you must stay awake. But the twist is that if they do take you over it won’t be horrible, you’ll just be like them and feel nothing bad or good ever again.
We’re a self-obsessed generation now, so there are collections of body horror stories, where people get too fat or too thin. Starting with something simple doesn’t mean you have to scale down your ambitions, but if you have too much happening in a short story, you’ll lose believability and lose your reader. Too little plot unveiled too slowly will bore them as much as too much plot will confuse.
A short story plot is not a three-act play. It doesn’t need the kind of structure one would expect in a novel. It may even end before the main event. In J G Ballard’s ‘The Watchtowers’, sinister towers are built all over a frightened town and nobody knows what they’re for. In the last line of the story they all begin to open at once; what happens? We don’t know. The point is to highlight the effect that a police state has on ordinary people.
In a very famous story, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, villagers hold a raffle and cheerfully stone a character to death, but there is no explanation provided that will allow us to understand their cruelty. The point of the story is that real cruelty is inexplicable. So the plot doesn’t directly provide the reader with satisfaction. It is the author’s delivery method for the idea.
A plot is a skeleton; it’s hidden under the skin. It needs characters and scenario to function. The perfect plot is one which emerges from a visible but hidden factor.
Here’s an example; ‘Don’t look now,’ says John to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’ John and Laura have lost their daughter – she drowned – and now they’re in Venice. Daphne Du Maurier’s short story ‘Don’t Look Now’ combines three ideas. I. John and Laura lost a child. 2. Two old ladies are psychic. 3. There’s a killer on the loose in Venice. The writer creates a situation in which these three facts rely on each other. If the couple had not gone to Venice, if there wasn’t a killer roaming the dark alleys, if the old ladies hadn’t been in the cafe. Laura spends too much time with the psychics and John gets frightened for her. Are they going to do something bad to her? We can’t see what’s coming, and nor can John. Because we’re looking in the wrong direction and we’re missing the obvious, just as John has missed it. John has an ability nobody knows about, not even him. He’s not seeing what’s happening now, he’s seeing what will happen in a few days’ time. And if he’d understood what he was seeing, everything would have been different – how often in life do we ask ourselves what would have happened if we’d only behaved differently? That’s why the story is famous; it will never date because it’s about an ordinary human regret.
A plot can’t simply be shoved onto its characters, because free will must be exercised – but of course people are blind, or optimistic, or cruel, and this affects the outcome. That’s life. The critic Kenneth Tynan once said that you don’t need to know why two people fall in love, you just need to know that they do.
There is a tendency for new writers to create one-note characters. People are rarely just one thing. They’re complex and contradictory, but you don’t have to reveal all their facets in one tale. Rather, you highlight the facet that the scenario brings to the fore. Going back to ‘Don’t Look Now’, when John spots the old ladies watching him and his wife in Venice he’s annoyed with them because they say they can see the ghost of a little girl sitting between them. John thinks they’re mad or sinister or crooks. He also knows that his wife is looking for a reason to believe. We don’t know that much about anyone – it’s a short story after all – but we do know they’re in conflict with each other from the opening sentence.
The greatest plot danger is predictability. I read a great many stories where I’m ahead of the writer. It’s not because I’m especially astute – I have trouble following Game of Thrones – but what seems original to the author is not original to the reader.
The unexpected is important. It’s the element in any story that makes you want to describe something you’ve read to others. ‘You’ll never guess what happened today’ is a phrase which begs the other person to undermine any surprise. In ‘Don’t Look Now’, the elements of the ending are put in place early on, and still we fail to spot the tragedy approaching because, in effect, we are like John. Mystery writing, in particular, is about the fair withholding of information. I stress ‘fair’ because it would be a cheat to reveal at the end that the protagonist is a dog, unless you can read the story a second time and see that it’s obvious. Hiding is not the same as withholding.
Let’s look at another Du Maurier tale, ‘Adieu Sagesse’. This plot concerns a dull 60 year-old banker with three children and a wife obsessed with appearance and status. He owns a leaky old boat that has never been sailed, and lovingly tends it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that he’ll soon give his horrible family the finger before taking off for the open sea. After all, the title can be translated as ‘Goodbye Common Sense’. But instead of a closing scene in which the old man leaves his family and sails into a calm and glorious sunset – the perfect happy ending – Du Murier makes him sail off into stormy grey seas. This is a lower-key surprise ending, but a surprise all the same. The suggestion is that it won’t be plain sailing, but at least he’s got away. It’s more realistic.
Stephen King fan has a good trick. He asks himself What if? What if a schoolgirl has telekinetic powers and doesn’t know it? And he often mixes two scenarios to form a new plot. He’ll also use another trick – take a very, very simple idea and keep pushing it further and further beyond its natural ending.
I can’t create your plot for you, but I can give you an example of where one might come from. I read a newspaper report about African towns with no natural water supply. How do they survive? They have the water delivered in a tanker once a week. What if someone stole the truck? Why would they do that? Well, how about a guy who needed to leave town fast whose only way out is by stealing the tanker? Suddenly I knew the story was there, because a moral problem had been created. The guy can save himself by stealing the truck, but will doom the whole town. If I care about what will happen, so will the reader. I called the story ‘Cupped Hands’.
Look for the stories where there are urgent decisions to be made. Look for the stories where the decisions are impossible to make. Then have your character decide to act in a surprising way.
There’s one other thing we have to do – create a memorable character. In a short story you have limited time to fix characters in your readers’ heads, so:
Don’t overdescribe physical appearance.
Don’t make them instantly likeable or dislikeable.
Don’t create too many characters. Don’t make them too complicated.
Don’t over-explain or over-analyse them. People are intrinsically annoying and mysterious. If you ask them to all go this way, some will go that way. A murderer may stop to pat a dog.
My mother once wrote a short story in which she established a family dynasty of about thirty characters – on the first page! By Page 2, I was hopelessly confused. Keep your story simple.
However, a short story frees you up to do anything with your characters, and you can establish a lot in a brief time. You can write ‘When Jack Smith was born, his mother was frightened by a taxi and gave birth to him in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. After this he walked around London acting as if he owned the place.’ A bit of childhood history can establish your hero’s later behaviour.
It’s been repeated by everyone, so it must be true; look at Dickens. He’ll establish a character in a few lines, with a few broad strokes, but his trick is to make each stroke recognizable. Look at, say, Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House – a woman so wrapped up in her charity work that she neglects her own children – and you’ll find an exact equivalent today. Simplicity is the key to a short story. Characters tell us who they are by the actions and decisions they take.
In John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’, a wealthy businessman decides to swim home. How? Via the swimming pools that cover the neighbourhood. As he goes from house to house and swims across his friends’ pools and has cocktails with all his neighbours we get a snapshot of their safe and comfortable lives. But when the hero makes it home, there is no home. The bank has taken it back.
It’s fatal to have a girl just think about her life on the page when you’ve only got two thousand words. Why should we care? A simple action might place us squarely on their side from the outset. Jill catches an old woman who is about to fall in front of a bus, and sees her home, but she also takes some money that’s been left lying on a table. Those two actions tell us much more about the character than having her stand at the window and think about her behaviour.
Most great short story writers use action to reveal the nature of their characters to the reader. Your lead character doesn’t have to be a nice person – some of the most exciting ones are horrible – but you still need to make the reader care about them. Evelyn Waugh’s characters are often hopelessly passive and lost, but you do care. ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ is actually the concluding chapter from the novel ‘A Handful Of Dust’. its useless hero becomes fatally lost in the jungle and is saved by a kindly old Englishman who has been living there for years. But when the hero’s rescuers arrive, he misses them because he is sleeping off a fever. They look around and leave – and our hero is doomed to stay in the jungle forever. Why? Because the old man drugged him and hid him before the rescuers arrived. Why? Because he enjoyed having the hero read Dickens to him, and wants him to stay there reading the same book to him over and over forever. But, thinking about it, is the villain of the piece really any worse than the hero? They both wanted something, but the ‘villain’ took action – which makes him, strangely, almost more appealing than the leading man.
One way to jump-start a story is by giving your hero a flaw, and putting them in a situation which will expose that flaw. A writer gets a job looking after a huge hotel for the winter but he drinks. The examples look ridiculously simple, but that’s where stories start. In Pushkin’s ‘The Queen Of Spades’ a young officer hears about a countess who knows the secret of card-playing, because she sold her soul to the devil. The young man is ambitious and in debt so he gets hold of the secret. Doesn’t that present a lot of possibilities to you?
The simpler the set-up, the more fun you can have with it. Stacy Aumonier is a long-forgotten English author who used to do just this. Here’s the set-up to his story ‘Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty’. A shy county spinster who has never been abroad before has to stay in a French hotel. Using the shared bathroom, she goes back to her room and shuts the door, but the handle comes off in her hand. Then she realizes that there’s a man asleep in the bed – she’s locked in the wrong room. What do you think happens? Mortified, she hides under the bed, not knowing that the man beneath the sheets is dead. Her escape from the room involves a trick with matches, a candle and a hairpin. After her adventure she writes home, but her letter is only filled with mundane news. Its in her nature to be reticent, and that means avoiding sensationalism. So, this is a story that achieves all of our opening aims; to entertain, to surprise, to reveal a truth and to touch the reader. By dispensing with anything complex, the author was free to explore the situation for several pages.
A hero’s character can define an entire story, yet there are a great many tales where the character is almost entirely undefined. In ‘Seven Floors’ by Dino Buzzati, a businessman with a very minor ailment is admitted to a hospital in which each floor denotes a different severity of illness, the ground level being reserved for those about to die. By accident, he soon finds himself being shunted downward, floor by floor. In ‘Just The Very Thing They Wanted’, a touring couple visit a small town and find themselves denied the most basic human rights, the need to sit down, to drink, to rest, to gather their strength. That doesn’t sound very frightening but it is; to be refused the simplest things makes you realise just how helpless you’d be without other people.
There are other tricks you can use. One is the Unreliable Narrator. Example: ‘It Didn’t Work Out’ by Margery Allingham. Polly and Lou are performers and best friends until Lou marries creepy Frank, who’s a liar, a wastrel & a braggart who destroys Lou’s career. Polly tricks the drunken Frank into climbing onto a building ledge and pushes him off. Lou can now resume her career and the friends can go back to being how they were before Frank came along. How does it end? Lou kills herself. She can’t live without Frank, and her best friend couldn’t see that they were in love and she was acting out of jealousy.
Another trick is the Story Without An Ending. In Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’, no explanation for the birds’ violent behaviour is given. This inexplicableness is what makes it so powerful.
The beauty of the twist story is that it can be very, very short. In Harlan Ellison’s ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, Fenton, a man in a coffee shop, sees a Nazi war criminal walk past, but he’s sure the man died many years ago. It must be someone who looks like him. But when he goes out onto the street Fenton sees another dead Nazi and another. And when Fenton looks down at his arm he finds a yellow star on it. He’s still reliving the horrors of the past, many years after arriving in America. The story is very short but its idea is big.
Nobody expects you to do this straight away. This depth of writing comes with experience. The key to writing frightening fiction is not to try and manufacture scares by forcing shocking effects into your story, but to let them emerge naturally from the clash of characters, without fuss or fanfare. The moments that get under the skin are not to do with blood and guts. Most of us only ever see gore on film. But we’ve all experienced betrayal and disappointment and fear and joy; it’s part of being human. Perhaps the perfect frightening story is one that also makes you tearful or joyful.
Thinking about parts of the story which remain hidden, let me give you a good example. Henry James’ ‘The Turn Of The Screw’ is a long short story – a novella – and is rather hard to read, but the film version, called ‘The Innocents’, works amazingly well. It involves possession and madness, ghosts and suicides, sexual perversion and child cruelty and even, possibly, paedophilia – but you won’t find any of this on the surface of the story. It’s not until you think about it afterwards that you realise just how depraved the hidden tale is, but on the surface all that’s there seems to be sunshine and flowers and birdsong and gentility and politeness. Later the film was remade by the appalling director Michael Winner. In his remake he spelled out many of these hidden things, with the result that the story has no power at all.
How do you write a story and hide all those secret things? You tell a tale about people and what they do to each other, and then you take out all of the more obvious bits where you’re giving the reader information, so that they have to work the rest out for themselves. Now, this may not be what you want to do. You may want to write the story of a ghostly pirate who cuts off people’s heads and drinks their blood in order to live forever, but it will just go on that pile of stories based on other stories which are based on films and TV shows, and it won’t have any lasting power.
I’ve only ever written one story that I’m truly 100% happy with, right down to the last few words which are repeated in the final line. It’s called ‘All Packed’ and was intended as a love story, but it turns out to be about death. There are just two people in it, and it’s just a few pages long. When I started it, I knew exactly where I was going with the story, the effect I wanted to create and the outcome I needed. What I didn’t realise was the effect those elements would have when they were combined. The moral is; know what you want to do when you start out, and that means planning.
But here’s one more secret to writing; all writers fall into one of two types. We’re either planners or gardeners. That is, we either map everything out on a grid, or we throw out handfuls of seeds and see what ideas spring up from those. I’m a gardener. But to be perfect, you need to be a bit of both in balance. And that’s the hardest thing of all.