Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowhat?

Where have I been, gentle readers? I have been on a lengthy sojourn in the Cardinals Nation, and I apologize for abandoning you while I gorged myself on sports fandom. (For the record, making sports-watching parties also costume parties renders them unusually appealing to non-sportsfans. Helpful!)


Since it's now Halloween (or Hallowe'en, or All Hallows' Eve - note the possessive plural, folks), I thought I'd bring you some horror writing pointers to keep your spooky story from turning dull and dreary.


We remember writers like Poe and Lovecraft because they had a distinctive style to their prose. Lovecraft in particular was so over the top that, if you try to emulate his writing now, you'll sound ridiculous. Do you think you can get away with a passage like this? "They were twitching morbidly and spasmodically, clawing in convulsive and epileptic madness at the moonlit clouds; scratching impotently in the noxious air as if jerked by some allied and bodiless line of linkage with subterrene horrors writhing and struggling below the black roots." 1 You can't. Rein in2 your adjective abuse and concentrate on tight, focused sentences. You can keep the imagery and some of the fun adjectives, but remove the redundancies and the not-quite-real words. Unless you're dealing in pastiche, work to emulate the unique visions of the great horror writers, not their bombastic prose. 


Once you've got that rule firmly in mind, branch out in your research. Much of our current horror landscape comes from Victorian novels and 19th century fairy tales. Horror ideas inspired by Southeast Asian folklore also seems to have a small if persistent place in the modern canon. Look beyond this and find something that inspires you to either come up with entirely new ideas or to reinterpret tropes in new ways. What did the ancient Egyptians fear? What did monsters look like in the Middle Ages?3 What does cognitive science have to say about how we get scared, or the things we see when we are? Consider delving into the background of whatever scared you as a child. (In my case, it was the bunyip from the Australian "Dot" movies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtrYO-Mog60 - as cheesy as this thing is, it still creeps me out.) 



Most of all, try to remember that horror has a wide spectrum of styles within it, from horror-comedy to psychological thriller. Think about what effect you're trying to evoke in your readers. Do you want them to get a pleasant shiver, or to not be able to sleep? Do you want to explore the deeper meaning of werewolves in modern culture, or just indulge in a gory romp? It's easy to project our own assumptions onto horror tropes, but not everyone will expect the same thing from what you're pitching as a "classic vampire story." Horror allows us to deal in allegory and dark metaphor, and for that reason will remain one of the most useful genres of fiction. Give it its due. 



1. From H.P. Lovecraft, "The Colour out of Space," archived at http://www.yankeeclassic.com/miskatonic/library/stacks/literature/lovecraft/novellas/colouro.htm
2. Yes, "rein" in. It's a horse metaphor - you're pulling up the reins of the horse that's trying to carry you away at a gallop. I know you want to talk about exerting control or rule, and therefore are inclined to use "reign," but that would be incorrect.
3. See Jeffrey Cohen's fascinating work on monster studies for more on this: http://www.gwresearchblog.com/2011/10/31/understanding-monsters-fear-desire-and-culture/

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Let's Talk about Parallelism

Do you remember the old Sesame Street song "One of These Things is Not Like the Other"? (If you've forgotten, you can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ect-kgxBb4M).  In this song,  kids are asked to pick out the one thing in a group of four that "doesn't belong." Sometimes the outlier is a plate with an extra cookie, or a number in a group of letters, or a bird surrounded by dogs.

People are good at spotting differences. What seems to be trickier is creating similarities. Look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph. I set up my sentence with a simple subject (the outlier), and then gave three examples that could each finish the sentence. The three examples had the same structure: simple noun + explanatory phrase. Like this:
[plate] {with an extra cookie}
[number] {in a group of letters}
[bird] {surrounded by dogs}

This is called parallelism, and it's crucial for making readable sentences that use multiple examples  -- a necessity in game writing.

A common error I see is one like this:

Jane the vampire is sexy, with flowing red hair, and people love to be seen with her. 

None of those things are WRONG. We can presume that all of those phrases do accurately describe Jane. To make the sentence neat, however, we need to beat those phrases into submission so they'll look nicer next to one another. (Think of it as grammatical Vicissitude.) Like this:
Jane the vampire has a gorgeous body, a head of flowing red hair, and a knack for being seen with the right people.
 OR
Jane the vampire is sexy, gorgeous, and popular.

(Jane may actually be an unpopular troll, but at least her sentence is pretty.)

This gets more complicated as sentences get longer and more complicated clauses are introduced. For instance, I wanted to end the previous sentence with "and we want to introduce more complicated clauses." That would have broken the parallel structure and given the predicate two mismatched phrases joined with an overtaxed, straining conjunction. (Poor thing.)

Parallelism errors can happen in the subject of a sentence, too:
Gangrel, the Garou, and what we know as skinriders can all change into animal shapes.
If you use "the Garou," you need to use "The Gangrel." To clean this up, I'd probably strike both the article and the phrase "what we know as." Now my sentence is neat:
Gangrel, Garou, and skinriders can all change into animal shapes.
This isn't rocket science, but it's not just fussy nitpicking either. The more organized your sentences are, the easier it is to get to the ideas inside. Good writing is invisible; bad writing is distracting. Enforcing parallelism helps streamline diverse ideas into matching forms, and allows more chances to pare dead weight in your prose.

For more help with parallel structure, see Purdue University's excellent online writing lab, the OWL, or this article at Writer's Relief.