5 Things I Learned from Shirley Jackson

Now, you all know who Shirley Jackson was, and if you don’t you can find out from last week’s post about Stephen King. She was most famous for her story “The Lottery,” in which the citizens of a small American town draw an annual lottery to stone someone to death—a story that caused an unbelievable furor when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948.

The most frightening aspect of “The Lottery” is that Jackson claimed a great many of the hundreds of letters she received were from people who wanted to know where that lottery was held and whether or not they could go watch.

Wow. She didn’t just find the pressure points in her readers and press them. Her readers pressed back!

A miracle of a writer.

But what I love Jackson for best are her ghost stories. She wrote a number of novels with the sole purpose of making you wonder what the hell is going on. I haven’t read all of them—I’m savoring the anticipation—but I have read We Have Always Lived at the Castle, The Sundial, and of course the wonderful, classical ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.

I just analyzed Hill House this past weekend. Although Jackson didn’t plan her novels (and, in fact, seems to have dealt with their structure with a rather liberal hand), I discovered a few things I didn’t know before, which I find simply extraordinary.

  1. Anticipation and fulfillment follow a simple arc

    If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about structure, you know it’s a straight-forward three-act design. And in a ghost story (or any story in which you want tension), this design depends as much upon anticipation and dread as it does upon fulfillment of the reader’s expectations:

    1. threat is perceived
    2. threat is described
    3. threat arrives
    4. threat develops
    5. threat retreats
    6. threat wins

    Can you can identify the six elements of structure in that? It’s really simple.

  2. Push/pull mechanism operates most powerfully in extremes

    Weak elements lead to weak reader engagement. This is why thrillers monopolize the best seller lists. You can write a story of people who are only slightly annoyed with each other while mainly pretty happy with their lot. But if you make your reader (not just your character!) really nervous, then really entertained, then really nervous again—you’ll have them by the nose-ring.

  3. The key to increasing tension is adding elements over time

    In Jackson’s work, this means adding emotional strategies for the characters to explore, ways in which they struggle harder and harder to cope with their dilemmas. Yes, your protagonist has two fundamental needs to meet. And they might have two ways in which they’re accustomed to meeting them. But the reader wants to know what they do when they’re backed in a corner, which means when their normal coping mechanisms are taken away from them.

    At first Jackson’s characters are either funny or frightened. Those are pretty normal coping mechanisms. Later they branch out into aggression. Numbness. Terror. And finally, against everything the reader has always believed in, surrender. . .

  4. Humor pushes tension past the reader’s defenses

    Humor is extremely difficult to manage because it’s such a very specialized skill, but if you’ve got the touch you’re golden. And the best place for humor to exist is not in the voice (although a lot of writers today, particularly children’s writers, depend upon a generic humor in first-person narrative voice) but in the characters.

    Jackson’s characters are deep, conflicted, touchy, secretive, and most of all witty. Even at the height of the climactic drama of the novel, in which the four main characters cower together in a bedroom all night while the house rocks and spins and tears itself to pieces around their heads, she managed to slip in a tiny bit of humor in the dialog of two characters trying—with white knuckles—to alleviate the terror that’s threatening to become all-out panic. In that instance, the reader’s resistance to their suspension of disbelief is broken by the deftness of Jackson’s touch, and the scene suddenly becomes unbearably real.

    WARNING: Don’t try to insert humor into your stories without working long and hard at it. Failed humor is worse than no humor at all.

  5. There is no substitute for beautiful writing

    Seriously. I don’t care how many times you hear, “Genre writing doesn’t have to be beautifully-written. It’s only entertainment,” that is bull. All writing is about getting into the reader’s mind, and now more than ever we need writers who understand that readers are not slot machines—insert genre whatever, out dumps a bunch of money—they are human beings with complex and sophisticated relationships to the stories they love.

    Yes, you can wring money out of readers with cheap stuff dashed off the top of your head so long as you accidentally or deliberately plug into some current fad. I could be doing that instead of editing and probably make a much better living. But fads fade over time, and if you’re dependent upon them for your sales your income will fade with them.

    You cannot create stories that last if you don’t care about the writing of them.

    Do you know why we’re still reading The Haunting of Hill House over fifty years after it was published, but nobody knows the names of the bad genre authors of the 1980s and ’90s (which authors are now griping away their years at ordinary jobs, embittered by the shift in their fortunes)?

    The writing.

22 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned from Shirley Jackson

  1. I think your #5 is KEY. So many writers overlook this! How many stories I’ve deleted from my Kindle over the last few months – I’ve lost count – because the writing was ho-hum boring! Humor (#4) is also good, but not many writers accomplish this. Kathryn Magendie is one – her writing is poignant and also makes me laugh out loud. Stephen King – on the dark side – is another.

  2. Jeffrey Russell says:

    This is a good post, Vitoria. Like so many others of yours it takes me from knowing something to knowing it better. Thanks.

  3. Jeffrey Russell says:

    That’s Victoria with a ‘c’… That’s what I get for relying too much on the spell-checker.

    1. Victoria says:

      That’s okay, Jeffrey. I know you know how to spell my name!

  4. Matthew Drake says:

    The layout is very helpful, great post. I have a tendency to forget #3 and try to lay it all on thr reader at once. Nice to have a checklist if sorts, to give proper points their needed attention.

  5. niamh clune says:

    I love this post. I do not read much in the way of thrillers or horror, but I love novels in which the underlying emotional tension is subtle and tacitly expressed. I love detail, elongated moments, but not over-description. The beating heart of a good book, the pulse, rhythm and musicality should rise and fall in crescendo and drama, even when it is lightly written and played on strings.

  6. Hi Victoria. I can’t agree with you more. You articulated so well how brilliant Shirley Jackson truly was and I love your ideas.

    I’d have to say #3 and #4 can be universally applied to any writing, not just ghost stories (though Jackson’s ‘Hill House’ is so much more psychological than a ghost story).

    I think your blog is incredible and I’ve linked to this on my own blog. I hope that’s OK.

    1. Victoria says:

      Thank you, Mike! Yes, it’s fine, but I sure appreciate your courtesy. 🙂

  7. Love the comparisons. Shirley Jackson was one of the best for a reason. I hope my own writing equals hers one day.

  8. I picked up The Haunting of Hill House this morning, I’m four chapters in, and already creeped out.

    I’ll keep all of these points in mind both while I continue reading, and go back to my writing.

    Thank you 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      You’re just about to hit the first big freak-out, Stu.

      Hang onto your chair.

      1. Okay, I’m a bit freaked out now.

        I live alone and not only I am jumping at every sound but I also have the feeling that someone is standing behind me when I’m on the treadmill.

        It’s a great book, and I’m learning a lot, but it’s not helping my nerves one iota.


        1. Victoria says:

          I’m so sorry, Stu! 🙂

          She was so brilliant.

          Analyze it line-by-line. It won’t remove the thrill of re-reading (she’s just too good), but it will remove some of the feeling of losing control.

  9. Stephanie T. says:

    I love the whole collection of stories of which “The Lottery” has become the star. They’re all equally weird, though none quite as stark.

  10. Love this post. And I’m just revising Life Form 3 with special attention to the threat. I’m pleased to see my progress is following those threat-steps to a T!
    Another point I’d add is that while you have the threat in retreat, you then foreground all that may be lost if the threat did win. Then you bring it back – and wham.

    1. Victoria says:

      This is lovely advice, Roz. Oh, yes! Even as the characters collapse in relief, they can be illuminating what it means to them to have escaped catastrophe.


  11. C R Myers says:

    You had me at “Shirley Jackson”. Ya gotta love anyone who loves Shirley Jackson. Esp. WE’VE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.


    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, yes. It doesn’t even matter that you can tell early on who really killed the family. That novel is so beautifully-written!

  12. I’ve finally gotten around to picking up an audiobook of Hill House for my commute. Nothing big has happened yet, but the tension in the atmosphere made me dream about Hill House last night!! Eek!

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, man. You’re going to be in trouble when you get to Chapter 5.

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