I love ghost stories.
Particularly the whole gothic genre of the nineteenth century: intense questioning of reality layered with beautiful houses and dramatic landscapes and sometimes hilariously-dated kitsch. I’ve read all of Mrs. Radcliffe. Whooee!
I especially love the concept that my love for ghost stories is the other side of my utter yellow-bellied, chicken-livered response the few times I’ve thought there was a real ghost in my vicinity. Have you ever seen anyone levitate straight in the air and cling to a chandelier?
Yeah, that was me.
That makes my relationship with ghosts and ghostly ephemera the complete encapsulation of everything I know about the internal conflict that is the driving fuel of all fiction:
- Be careful what you wish for or you might just get it
- When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers
So it will be no shock to any of you to learn that my one of my favorite novels of all time is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
My god, what an amazing writer. I stumbled on that book in a second-hand store a few years ago, but I was not surprised to discover later that it is canonical and, in fact, one of the novels that taught Stephen King his trade. (I would love to get into a discussion of all Jackson’s work, and at a some point I probably will, but for now I’m going to content myself with recommending this gorgeous, mysterious novel to writers in general.)
I was interested enough when I heard that King discusses The Haunting of Hill House in his nonfiction exploration of horror to run out and buy a copy of Danse Macabre, which King wrote in 1981 between Firestarter and Cujo (not counting one of the novels he wrote under his Richard Bachman-Turner-Overdrive pseudonym).
Now, it turns out King’s interpretation of Hill House is, sadly, so wildly pedestrian as to be almost useless. He analyzes Hill House at length as the height of narcissism because it’s about the internal world of a young woman with whom he can’t identify (although one of his own favorite novels is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which is about the internal world of a man with whom he apparently can). King finally admits there might be another “truly terrifying” interpretation of Hill House, which is that it’s the house itself that’s generating the ghosts. . .um, bingo, Stephen.
However, King is still heck of smart, his book is a meticulous research project on the horror genre of the twentieth century (largely movies and television, but also fiction), and he’s a very good writer when he wants to be.
I dog-eared dozens of pages of Danse Macabre so I could go back later and copy out quotes and insights, which I am studying right now. And I’m discovering that even when King is a little limited in his exploration of his basic insights, they lead me into truly rich ground in my own understanding of fiction.
Fiction is seeking pressure points
Wow, do I love this insight.
Fiction is about reaching into the reader, past their intellectual understanding of both your story and themself, and pressing where it’s sensitive. Some writers—like King—do what they do because for many people the resulting adrenalin rush of terror temporarily deadens all other feeling and gives them some relief from their own fears. And King has learned that readers in an era of political upheaval and economic uncertainty are willing to plunk down a whole lot of cash for relief.
This is also why romance aka soft-core p*rn is the top-selling genre these days.
Adrenalin rush through either procreation or running for your life, the two most predictable chemical jolts in the animal kingdom. Temporary relief.
But even if you’re not interested in simple-minded triggering of the adrenalin of terror or sex (as I really am not—there are real-life social and personal consequences to addiction to those particular adrenalin triggers, which I’m not going to get into here), your goal is still to trigger emotion in the reader.
Not in your characters. In the reader. Visceral response.
Without that, you’re just talking to yourself.
Without belief, there is no reader engagement
King talks about reader engagement purely in terms of terror and horror, but again this insight applies to all genres, all fiction.
Is your goal to engage the reader in a fantasy adventure? That reader had better believe the logic behind your fantasy, or they’re not going to feel the thrill of the adventure.
Is your goal to engage the reader in an exploration of sci-fi? That reader had better believe in your science, or they’re not going to feel invested in the consequences.
Is your goal to engage the reader in YA or MG? That reader had better believe in the authenticity of your teenagers’ or children’s world, or they’re not going to feel one cotton-pickin’ thing for the dilemmas of your characters.
Fiction is both what you say out loud and what you say in a whisper
This is called subtext, and it’s essential for all storytelling.
An enormous amount of the writer’s toolbox is devoted to techniques specifically designed for subtext: structure, pacing, resonance, juxtaposition, dialog, description, action, gesture and mannerism and expression, word choice and and sentence structure and telling detail. The list goes on and on.
Devote yourself to learning these techniques, and the entire universe of subtext will blossom for you with a complex and unearthly beauty.
Locking the world out is locking the world in
Again, King discusses this purely in terms of terror—that the character’s efforts to hide (specifically inside a house) lead them very often to closet themself with their enemy.
But this is, in the greater scheme of things, why readers read: as they sink into fiction to escape their own worries and griefs, they find themselves unconsciously drawn to stories that reflect those very things.
This is the psychological reflex of healing. We are unconsciously desperate to lock ourselves in with what truly haunts us (not just what pushes our buttons), to face it and triumph once and for all.
Lives and careers can be destroyed in a moment
Fast, succinct, condensed—these are the hallmarks of great fiction.
You want your fiction to be powerful, don’t you? Well, power is greatest where matter is most condensed. Don’t stand too close to a black hole, people.
Reader engagement arises from the feeling that the world is ‘unmaking’
And this is perhaps my very favorite insight. Just that word: ‘unmaking.’ King has put his finger on the pressure point of all humanity with that one.
Both anticipation and anxiety are the key human responses to the possibility that something we want and need will all our souls is being ‘unmade.’ And those are two of the most powerful push/pull emotions a writer can use.
Push the reader away with anxiety—oh, no! things are falling apart!
Pull the reader in with anticipation—oh, boy! things are falling apart!
The ways in which the reader feels these developments depend entirely upon how you craft your characters, what needs you give them, what illumination you cast upon their endless struggles to meet their needs.
This is the core of the writer’s work: employing the myriad wonderful techniques of fiction to play upon the reader’s emotions like a xylophone.
Stephen King did a lot of cocaine in the early ’80s
And you can sure tell.
You get this from the last third of Danse Macabre, which escalates into the final chapters until you can veritably hear that ole razor scraping the mirror. “Just one more last thing,” he starts saying. “Just one more last thing.”
Notice how he loses reader engagement when it stops being about leading the reader where he’s decided he wants them to go and begins to be only about him and his frantic, hopped-up need to just keep talking?
Take a lesson from Stephen King.
This post was brought to you by M. Terry Green, author of Shaman, Healer, Heretic, who asked me a simple question in email this morning (“How are you?”) and started an avalanche.