By Craig Dilouie
Let’s start with plot.
Plot begins with the basic three-act structure. We have the normal, the horror element changes everything, and then we have the new normal. Setup, confrontation and resolution.
A family moves into a new house to make a fresh start. The town is terrorized by a werewolf, which the family must fight to survive. The family defeats the werewolf, and the town is freed from an ancient curse.
Beginnings are everything. People need to be grabbed right from the get-go. In the electronic age, many people buy according to the digital preview, and they’ll even review your book based on that sample. Since the first part of the book will deal with the normal, with a significant number of pages occurring before we get to the first plot point where everything changes, we might do some foreshadowing using some type of inciting incident. Start things off with a bang.
In our werewolf example, we might start our story with the previous owner of the house being hunted and brutally killed in the woods behind his house. Later on, the family will find the body. This sets up the threat and lets us know that the family moving in is in for horror. And that keeps us turning pages.
The human brain is wired with a strong desire to know what happens next. But we have to care what happens next. That requires hinting at the horror element and its threat early in the story through an inciting incident; introducing and maintaining conflict and tension; and giving us characters we care about. Characters who will be put outside their comfort zone but for the most part, always have hope. The building blocks of plot and pacing are scenes. Each scene must include either conflict (protagonist struggles against an antagonistic force) or a reveal (give the reader information, a puzzle piece that makes the overall picture clearer).
There are plenty of good writing books that elaborate on this and provide much more, so I won’t go further than that. Endings are important too. If you end a story well, the book will haunt readers long after they close its covers. Importantly, they’ll be more likely to tell their friends about the book, which can generate sales. Resolve the conflict, tie up the loose ends and maybe leave an open question, something for them to imagine or think about. So in our werewolf example, we might end the story with Dad concealing a bite. The curse lives on. That may seem predictable, so maybe they’re all hiding a bite. The next full moon, the entire family will be agonizing over whether they’ll hurt the others, and find out they’ll be hunting together as pack.
Wait a minute. Three acts, you say? At 80,000 words, that’s say 20,000 words for the setup, 40,000 for the confrontation, 20,000 for the resolution. A lot of writers get stuck in that middle ground. In desperation, some commit one of two sins. They either give up the book and start another, or they drop in a lot of filler—people talking, nothing much happening, or the very predictable happening—to get to the climax. Writers should understand the three-act structure has a lot of discrete steps, and following these steps is key to driving the story along.
One of the best books on writing I’ve read is Larry Brooks’ STORY ENGINEERING. He breaks the novel down to four acts.
The first 25% is the inciting incident that foreshadows the central conflict plus introduction to the normal. It ends with a climax—an event, a spoken word, a thought, something—that changes everything. In a horror novel, this is typically where the horror element reveals itself as a threat.
The next 25% of the book is the hero reacting to that event. So if our hero visits a haunted house on a dare (normal) and sees a ghost (first plot point), the next 25% of the book will be our hero running like hell and trying to escape the house. Then, at the midpoint, another big thing happens. Say our hero finds a book that can banish the evil presence in the house. For the third quarter of the book, our hero is empowered and now goes on the attack. But unsuccessfully; it looks like he or she’s going to lose. At the second plot-point, at about 75% into the story, another big thing happens, and our hero rises against terrible adversity and goes all in to win or die trying. The pacing should build tension throughout.
Remember, a good horror story requires clear and rising stakes. Build tension by establishing the horror element and through foreshadowing. Note you can release a little tension at key points, however, with a few red herrings. For example, our family hears thrashing in the bushes and thinks it’s the werewolf. Instead, it’s Rags, the family dog, whom we thought lost in a previous chapter. Catharsis and relief at seeing a family pet returned (instead of a werewolf come to kill them) release some of the tension while keeping the reader on his or her toes. Should the plot flow naturally from the keyboard or be outlined in advance? Outlining is generally recommended to clearly articulate the overall plot arc(s) at a minimum. I also find it ideally suited to stories where you want perfectly timed reveals. Some writers outline very strictly, others build a loose frame around which they’ll build their story on the fly.
As with all things, it pays to plan ahead.
[In Part 4 — which will appear on Tues Oct 27th — we’re going to get to that part of the story that doesn’t scare us but rather allows us to feel the chills — characterization]
Craig DiLouie is the author of zombie favorites TOOTH AND NAIL, THE INFECTION and its sequel THE KILLING FLOOR, as well as THE GREAT PLANET ROBBERY, a science fiction novel, and PARANOIA, a psychological thriller. His latest novel is SUFFER THE CHILDREN.