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OST: Rejecting the Supernatural

I’ve decided to make some of my thoughts on storytelling public. Teaching others to write – or write well – is a dicey proposition. Some folks lay out rules, methods of going about creating engaging story-lines. Story arc construction via the three act structure, the steps of the hero’s journey as according to St. Campbell. Something in me balks at those methods, though I’m fully aware they work wonderfully for many authors. They just don’t work for me.

I’ve long held that you can’t teach anyone to write – they have to teach themselves by doing. It’s only after completing something – a story, a novel, a screenplay – that they can then begin to process and digest all they might’ve learned about how to write. It’s an individual process and holds only subjective truths, not universal. If it works for you, it works for you.

That being said – that all writing advice is subjective – I think I’ll start posting some of my ruminations about effective storytelling, the writer’s life, and, possibly, publishing.

(I know far more about writing than I do about publishing. Writing about publishing is tantamount to proclaiming the status of a chunk of ice-flow as you’re standing on it, being swept out to sea by the current.)


Rejecting The Supernatural

I love genre stories – fantasy, horror, sf, crime. There’s not much I’ve written that doesn’t fall into one of those book bins. Indeed, I’m contracted from here until eternity to continue writing within those categories. Lately, because this is what I do for a living now, I’ve begun asking myself a simple question regarding my story and novel concepts: “Does this story require a supernatural element?”

Hold on. Let me back up.

Netflix Stream Instantly is a wonderful and frustrating service. On the one hand, it offers thousands of movies for instant visual gratification. On the other hand, eighty percent of those movies suck. So, I spend an inordinate amount of my time separating the wheat from the cinematic chaff.

Recently, I watched two small independent flicks worth mentioning. The first is a supernatural ghost story called The Eclipse staring Ciarán Hinds and Aidan Quinn.

In The Eclipse, Ciarán Hinds plays a Irish widower who’s trying to deal with his wife’s death while holding his family together. Meanwhile, he’s also volunteering for an international literary festival. Enter Lena, an author of a book called The Eclipse that posits the existence of ghosts. Also attending the festival is Nicolas, a uber-douchebag author played wonderfully by Aidan Quinn, who’s had an extra-marital fling with Lena the previous year and hopes to do so again.

So, the story moves in wonderful ways, shuffles about the classic romantic entanglements inherent in the power of three. Lena is wounded and gorgeous. And Nicolas is just a magnificent boozy-philandering bastard. Ciarán Hind’s wonderfully brooding yet vulnerable Michael cements the story. Wait, did I mention that Michael is being haunted? I didn’t? Huh.

The other movie was called The Corridor. It’s the story of five childhood friends (or frenemies) who go to a remote cabin ostensibly for the wake of one of their mothers and to heal the rift caused by one of the men’s psychotic break at his mother’s death in which he injured another of the group. During their time at the cabin, all of their masks they use to protect themselves in life are stripped away. Old wounds are healed, new wounds opened.

Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. They find an alien corridor in the woods that signifies something. Um, I don’t know what, really.

You get where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Both of the stories would have probably been stronger with the exclusion of the supernatural. In The Eclipse, I’m trying to figure out if the title is in reference to the Lena character’s novel or the fact that the love story totally eclipsed the supernatural element. It’s a wonderful movie, truly, and I’d recommend it highly, four stars, not because of the ghosts but because of the characters and their fret and rush toward each other.

With The Corridor, I think the writer made an easy choice, picking out a McGuffin to drive the story along. I think the more courageous choice would have been to exclude any hint of the fantastical and figure out a way to tell the same story of character growth and male bonding without that crutch.

How does this apply to me? How should I take this?

Writers are weird. (Water is wet.) Even though I’m contracted to write at least a novel a year (some years two) until 2016, I’m still plotting and planning my projects after that.  A couple of them are historical fiction – one a coming of age story, the other focusing on a famous historical figure – and both were concepted originally with supernatural aspects. But lately I’ve been asking myself, “Do these stories require a supernatural element?”

The answer is, honestly, no. It’s yet to be seen if I have the courage to write them without it.

And that’s on me, alone. I have to come to grips with what I want to be as an author, what parts of the stories I tell please me the most. I love the ghosts, the zombies, the vampires, but sometimes what I need to say about the human condition isn’t served well by their inclusion. Other times, they’re the perfect analog for the human heart in conflict with itself.

We write what what we like. But sometimes we should remember to write what best serves the story.

4 replies on “OST: Rejecting the Supernatural”

I love historical fiction. The first novel I wrote was about buffalo hunters in 1874. It was the fourth novel I got published and it’s difficult to find reviewers (and customers) for it. Everybody who loves my ghosts and ghoulies stuff pretty much shuns my non-fantastical endeavors. That’s not to say I don’t even think about writing anything that doesn’t have a speculative element. I’ve got a new straight western coming out next year. But having started the career I have in spec fiction, I’ve noticed it’s been difficult not to send my mind off in that ‘weird’ direction. My question to myself now is usually ‘why does this have to take place in the past?’

Ed, I hear you. I don’t want to write to market, but part of me naturally veers that way in the same way I imagine some songwriters naturally veer toward pop, or blues. It’s an inclination that’s hard to deny. On the other hand, many of my stories focus on familial discontent, or personal redemption. Love. Self-sacrifice. Those are, in the end, the things I chose to write about. Not tentacles. So I have to take my books (or stories) on an individual basis and really try to discover what I want to say. There’s the cool factor – gore, action, violence, sex, exciting concepts – and then there’s the engine that propels the work. The characters. I’m tending to choose characters over cool, these days.

Great blog! Primarily a genre writer myself, the first thing I consider when writing a story is will it work without the supernatural/fantastic element. If so, then I try to figure out if I can make it work relying completely on the supernatural element, backward engineering so it’s both unpredictable, yet logical. That works about 50% of the time, though I usually don’t find out until I’m into the meat of the story, and by then, it’s too late. If it’s forced, it shows, and those stories end up saved on my hard-drive until I mine parts of it for something else. I need to reread some of those and try to take the supernatural out of them again, see if they’ll work another way. Thanks for writing this, it’s giving me ideas I need right now.

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