Vonnegut's 8 Basics of Fiction Writing

While Kurt Vonnegut was primarily known for Slaughterhouse Five, he also created a host of other, equally memorable and powerful works. Sometimes extremely dark, while other times outrageously funny his pieces always delved into the human condition.

From his short collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, here are 8 basics for fiction writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I especially love #3 and #4. Each moment in your story must be purposeful and with cause. It took me such a long time to work on feeding readers information in an organic way rather than taking them by the hand. It's something I still have to check myself on.

Which of these fiction basics stood out to you the most? Were there any you disagree with?

7 Reasons Why You're Experiencing Writer's Block

Have you ever heard of a surgeon saying they couldn't operate because they had medical block or an auto repair technician wait for inspiration before fixing a car? The creative field, particularly writing, seems to be the only one in which blocks can occur. Although, there are some that truly believe in this phenomenon, I'm of the mind that writer's block is caused by external factors.

Once you figure out specifically what's wrong, you can then address the issue and write again.

Here are 7 reasons why writer's block might be kicking in:

  1. Distractions. Facebook, the news, your dog, or a new book. Anything can be a distraction and supersede your writing time. Don't let it!

  2. You're Hungry/Thirsty. If I'm hungry or thirsty I can't write. Try to have a meal an hour or two before you start to write. Keep water, coffee, or the drink of your choice by your computer.

  3. Your Environment. If busy cafes are too distracting then don't write in them. Similarly, some people do better if there is a lot of background activity going on. Find out what works best. Also consider temperature, humidity, etc.

  4. You're Burned Out. This isn't the same as being blocked creatively, but rather you're exhausted. You need rest. Let your manuscript sit a while, get some sleep, and then dive back in. Sometimes, you may need to take a few days off. That's okay. It's just like a job. Vacation time is important.

  5. You're Mentally Scattered. What I'm referring to are racing thoughts. They could be because of emotional worry or need. Or, you have too many ideas for a plot. Calm down, pace yourself, and just let the words flow.

  6. Perfectionism. You are obsessed with making it sound good the first time. If it doesn't, you either rewrite what you've written or give up altogether. Stop! Instead, just write and keep what comes out. Editing comes later.

  7. Fear. What if this has already been done? What if everyone hates it? What if they hate me? These fears happen to everyone, but the goal is to fight through them and keep writing.

Can you think of any more not shown? How do you deal with writer's block?

5 Horror Writing Prompts

"So where do the ideas—the salable ideas—come from? They come from my nightmares. Not the night-time variety, as a rule, but the ones that hide just beyond the doorway that separates the conscious from the unconscious."

- Stephen King

Horror often gets a bad rap because people assume that it's only purpose is to terrify and shock readers. While that is true, that's not the primary focus. The point of horror is to allow a safe reflection of our own primal fears. We watch a slasher film, become terrified, but we also remember to lock the doors at night. It's important to keep this in mind when crafting your own terrifying tale.

Here's a few horror prompts to start with:

1.

Your character takes a short cut through a nearby cemetery to make it home before dark. On the way they hear a voice calling for help. Upon arriving at the source of the sound, they see that a grave has been dug up part way and a coffin is nailed shut. Someone inside is crying.

2.

After an intense battle with a strange disease, your character accepts the fact that they will die. However, it just so happens that a cure is discovered in the nick of time. What's the cure? Blood. Lots and lots of it.

3.

A group of characters are on a ghost tour in one of the supposedly most haunted places on Earth. In truth, no one in the group actually believes in ghosts - until they start to disappear one by one.

4.

A child psychiatrist has a particularly disturbing patient who won't stop drawing everyone around them in macabre death scenes; from drownings to suicides. While certainly bizarre, the strange hobby isn't exactly harmful - that is until the drawings suddenly play out in reality.

5.

Your character whips out their phone, takes a selfie, and then opens the picture gallery to admire what could be their next profile pic. That's when they see it; dozens and dozens of photos they don't remember taking. Each more disturbing than the last.

Did you know that I have a book of even more horror prompts? 1,001 of them to be exact! There are a host of different categories, from serial killers to cults. They are also completely different than the five prompts above.

Available in print, ebook, and soon to be audio. Check it out here!

Why Variation in Character Perspective is Important

Imagine that a crime has just taken place a group of witnesses are asked to describe the suspect in question. In one sentence, they say the following:

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From my upcoming book, "Write Horror." Art by me.

As you can see, the perspective of the suspect changes depending on who is being asked. A woman might consider this guy unpresentable while someone with a lot more hair and a shaggy beard might believe him to be well-groomed. In a similar vein, an older man might believe the suspect to be younger, while a teen might rightfully say he was older from her perspective.

Of course, in an actual police procedural, officers would push for more details to get a more fordable picture, but I hope this gives you a good idea of why character perspective is important. Quite simply, your characters are going to view each other differently, and not only is it your job as a writer to understand this, but it also allows your readers to have more character development for each player involved.

Using a Tension and Time Graph for Your Story

Although, not everyone likes the idea of mapping out their story before they even start writing, I do think having structure-based visuals are helpful in looking at the overall arc of your piece. Amongst the most impactful to my personal writing has been the tension and time graph.

See Below:

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As you can see, on the left you have the level of tension where the bottom would be no tension, and the top would be the highest level of tension. Then, you have the time in the story in which these moments occur in your story. Each crisis can also be mapped out so that you have a birds eye view of how each of these affect the larger arc of the piece.

Personally, I also like to dissect my TvT graph by way of scene as well.

See below:

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While this works very similarly to mapping out each moment of crisis, I also like to name my scenes so that I can make additional notes. Whereas, Scene 1 might be "Diner scene" or Scene 2 might be "First confrontation." Overall, the key should be to use these type of graphs to determine how tense your scenes are, at what point in the story they take place, and the rate at which they occur.

In doing so, you will also have a better idea of where you need to cut back, need to add more release of expectation, etc.

5 Science Fiction Writing Prompts

"Individual science fiction stories may seem trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all."

- Isaac Asimov

Science fiction is a wonderful genre because it not only asks the question of why, but also concerns itself with humanity's future. Will it be positive or negative? When writing science fiction, whether hard or soft consider what technological, political, and social advancements might affect your characters and story.

Here are some prompts to help you get started.

1.

Your character is on an important peace mission. They must meet with the world dictator of a powerful planet whose people are prone to destruction. Linguists from all over the world have spent decades dissecting the language and your character has been taught it for the last three years. It's too bad that that they got some of it wrong. For instance, "peace" might inadvertently be replaced with "war."

2.

In the future, brain mapping can show a person's past, present, but also their future. People are paying top dollar to learn who they fall in love with, how they will die and so forth. After all, the future can be changed. What people don't realize, however, is that every aspect that is changed simply creates a new timeline. Soon it's all going to catch up with them.

3.

It is estimated that 99% of the world is now a cyborg of some sort. An unnamed character is the last of a dying (literally) breed. It comes as quite the shock, then, when they are threatened with deactivation

4.

Your character wakes up, strolls into the kitchen and then walks out the door of a 1700s saloon. Panicking, they run out of the door of the saloon and stumble into their living room. They run back into their kitchen and walk out into the mission control room of the space station. Their whole house has become a series of wormholes!

5.

The future is a dark and desolate place. 3/4 of the world's population has been destroyed along with most species on Earth. However, a small group of survivors remain. Amongst them, your character is foraging for food when they stumble into a deep hole in the ground. Not only do they manage to survive, but they happen across an entire ecosystem that has been protected. Including a new race of people!

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Did you know that I have a book of even more science fiction prompts? 1,001 of them to be exact! There are a host of different categories, from aliens to space exploration. They are also completely different than the five prompts above.

Available in print, ebook, and soon to be audio.

Check it out here!

What is Psychological Horror and Why Are we So Obsessed with It?

In short, psychological horror is highly reliant on the mental and the emotional state of the audience. It relies heavily on the buildup of suspension, creating elements of dread before frightening, disturbing, or simply unsettling the audience as the payoff. For example, a character isn’t just placed in a world in which a serial killer is loose, but a large part of the narrative would be the uncertainty of what would happen next. In addition, psychological horror also deals heavily with the psychology of the “baddies” and the fear itself. Thus, it’s not just the serial killer, but the unpleasantness associated with who is being killed, why they are being killed, and so forth. This makes all the difference between just another slasher and a piece that will make audiences questioning some aspect about humanity, or even themselves. In addition, psychological horror does not have to be true to real life. It can feature supernatural or paranormal themes prominently. The main consideration, however, is the fact that the mind creates what isn’t there. It is the slow reveal and dissection of information that allows audiences to not only get a sense of dread, which begets fear, but it also allows us to later examine it after the threat has passed.

Why do we like it?

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Although we have a high degree of enjoyment for all types of horror, we do have a special place for psychological tales. In many ways, they resemble our nightmares, which is a reflection of our waking fears. Thus, they allow us a way to explore these fears from the comfort of our homes, movie theatres, etc. We know that the serial killer or crazed madman on screen isn’t actually going to kill us. At the same time, we know that it is not outside of the realm of possibility for something like this to occur. That’s where the fear comes from. It’s the what if of what might happen in the real world. A world we know is horrible. Serial killers really do exist, mass murderers still happen almost every week, and sometimes it seems like we are living in our own Final Destination movie, where one wrong step could mean the difference between life and death. Even when the psychological horror we consume also has a supernatural bent, (take the Babadook for instance) the emphasis is either placed on the realistic elements or there is a general uncertainty about whether or not the supernatural elements are actually happening; sometimes both.

Keep in mind that by their nature, psychological horrors are designed to catch us off guard. Through atmosphere and use of setting, the audience is thrust into a very specific environment. Of course, this happens in other horror genres as well, but also consider the fact that is often subverted. Think of the “jump scares” that sometimes take us off guard. For example, in the Sixth Sense we know the huge twister (spoiler alert) is that it is actually Dr. Malcom Crow, a psychologist helping a child who sees ghosts, who is dead. Even when we see these twists coming, the reveal of information throughout keeps our wits sharpened and our eyes fresh in spotting any clues. So, psychological horrors not only gives us a platform to explore very real fears in a controlled environment, but it also helps us sharpen the tools we might need to draw from; should anything actually happen like these examples in our waking life.

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Recommendations

Now that we know what psychological horror is and why we are so compelled to seek it out, here’s a list of some of my personal favorite psychological horror books and movies and why I recommend them. Feel free to share some of your own!

Movies ·

The Babadook (2014): A mother and her son try to fall into a sense of normalcy the year after her husband dies. This movie is an incredible example of how psychological horror gives us a lens to explore inner fears and turmoil. Specifically, the “monster” in the movie is the physical embodiment of grief.·

The Sixth Sense (1991): After a child reveals to Dr. Crow that he sees dead people, the therapist undergoes a great deal of self-discovery. This is not only considered M. Night Shyamalan’s best piece, but is often hailed as one of the best examples of a solid twist ending. It’s also interesting to go back and look at how Shyamalan threads out bits and pieces of the future reveal.·

Get Out (2018): The film opens with Chris Washington being introduced to his girlfriend's family; in which race plays a huge part in the film and family dynamic. Once there, Chris slowly begins to realize that something is amiss. Director Jordan Peele creates a masterpiece that tackles race relations in an interesting, and of course, psychologically stimulating way.·

Psycho (1960): A woman goes on the lam after stealing $40,000. She checks into the inconspicuous Bates Motel, where things get very, very unsettling. Regarded as one of the first serial killer yarns, Hitchcock’s piece delves straight into the strange psychology behind why some may kill. This film was also inspired in-part by real life serial killer, Ed Gein.

Books ·

The Shining by Stephen King: Writer, Jack Torrance, is a recovering alcoholic that is looking to put the past behind him for his wife and son. He becomes the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. Once settled in, he and his family get anything but rest and relaxation. The movie is also worth watching. It’s a good example of the complexity of psychological horror and how it often models our own inner demons.·

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: Patrick Bateman is a very successful business man living in New York City during the premiere Wall Street peak of the 1980's. He also has a penchant for cocaine and killing. Not only are Bateman’s nefarious deeds an interesting look into the psyche of the murderer, but the interiority of his character also allows us to explore our own depravity. ·

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay: When a young girl has a psychotic breakdown, a family is thrown into disarray. After trying out medication, the family contacts an exorcist and a television crew. The book takes place years after the girl has grown up while having an interview with a writer. It’s a good window into the psychology behind exorcism, as well as when “help” becomes downright exploitation. ·

The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe: Featuring such classics as “The Raven”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and the title piece, Poe is one of the masters of psychological horror. In addition, Poe also heavily relies on the idea of an unreliable narrator, in which the audience questions their own sanity.

A Quiet Place (2018) Film Review.

Make a sound. You die.

It’s an interesting premise, but what makes “A Quiet Place” especially unsettling is that the film (directed by John Krasinski) carries that mantra directly into the audience. If you see this in theaters, you’ll do well to forgo the popcorn, candy, or any other common noise-makers. The silence is almost palpable and almost immediately the audience is drawn into a world where communication is done through American Sign Language. The film opens 89 days after skeletal, humanoid aliens have already landed. A small family is foraging for materials (namely medicine) when the audience is pushed into the horror of the film’s reality – even the slightest noise can cause these monsters to appear and ravage the poor soul who dared make a sound. There’s a lot that works in the film. The cinematography allows one to envision a forgotten world. One in which even the survivors must muster the strength and fortitude to continue going. Survival, for example, means the family constantly has to monitor their noise level, which means pouring lines of sand for them to walk in and having a color-coded system in which to warn each other of danger.

The acting, usually a horror miss, is deserving of applause in this film. Evelyn and Lee (played by real life couple, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt) not only have obvious chemistry, but there is no questioning the love the characters have for their children. It’s a love that is honest, which means there are times when the parents make mistakes, grave ones, and thus, the audience is left pondering their own decisions. In equal vein, the son, Marcus (played by Noah Jupe) does a remarkable job playing a child who fears what’s out there and wants to shirk any future responsibilities he might have in a bid for safety. This acts as a good counter to stand-out character, Regan, (played by Millicent Simmonds) who wants desperately to secure a role in keeping the family safe and protected as daughter and sister. Since Regan is deaf, she must not only take a backseat role to this, but her deafness becomes its own crutch. Krasinski, as a director handles this especially well and I found myself wanting desperately to see her have some kind of victory, even if it meant drawing in more monsters. It is also worth noting that Simmonds is deaf in real life which is a wonderful bit of representation.

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Perhaps one of the biggest failings of the movie, for me personally, is the creatures themselves. The skinless humanoid trope has been seen time and time again. We saw them in Signs, Pan’s Labyrinth, Stranger Things, and I Am Legend just to name a few. In addition, the design also causes the creatures to open their strange heads to take in more sound frequencies. It’s both bizarre visually and in a technical facet. I wish designs would have drawn more from bats (other than the creatures’ large ears) or other echolocation-using creatures. Moreover, while I could appreciate the B-movie feel of the piece (newspapers, for example, alert both the audience and characters to the rise of these monsters), there are times when some of the technical details, or the lack therefore, caused me to over-analysis and question some what was happening on film.

In addition, there were also moments where the tension was halted to let more exposition seep in. For example, there is scene between father and son where they openly talk about the daughter’s feelings and how the creature’s hearing works (louder sounds drawn out smaller sounds). This felt like too much hand-holding for the audience and was placed to have a platform for a latter plot point. Although, unnecessary I could forgive this flatness because of the way that the rest of the piece unfolds.

Overall, A Quiet Place is a piece of masterful storytelling by Krasinski. The focus here is on the family and their will to survive. It is through that lens that the director can use our own senses against us and give us a piece that is not only memorable, but one that requires further analysis and thought.

Run Time: 95 minutes

Production: Paramount Pictures

Director: John Krasinski

Screenplay: Bryan Woods & Scott Beck