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.
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:
- threat is perceived
- threat is described
- threat arrives
- threat develops
- threat retreats
- threat wins
Can you can identify the six elements of structure in that? It’s really simple.
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.
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. . .
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.
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)?