Writing Genre Specific Fiction

Each genre of fiction incorporates specific nuances. Comedy must be ripe with jokes, thrillers constantly elevate the stakes, drama evolves conflicts, and horror unleashes fright. The best writers do not compress their stories to fit within the limitations of a single genre, but often utilize elements that will enhance their own story from parallel genres. When a song is composed it is written with a specific key in mind – but elements of the song will inevitably transition to other keys – relative minors, fifths, parallel minors, etc.

I have yet to write a horror story but look forward to utilize the elements of dread, terror, and shock. I am also certain mystery will be the engine that keeps the viewer captivated. I recently rewatched Pirates of the Caribbean (action) and was shocked to find just how frequently mystery was used to carry the story through each act. Major reveals catapult the first and second act into the third – the pirates on the Black Pearl are all dead, Will Turner is the son of a pirate, the gold medallion is valuable because an Aztec curse was placed upon it, and Jack’s seemingly garbage compass actually works precisely as its supposed to.

These captivating reveals are never dumped as information but occur as payoffs. In the beginning of the film we see Will wearing the medallion but do not know its significance. We know there is a supernatural aura regarding the pirates from the skepticism villagers display. Still, we have no reason to assume they are immortal. Jack Sparrow’s compass appears to move erratically – but he studies it as if its telling him something.

I feel that unfolding a story in this way requires the writer to know the secrets before they are revealed. That may seem obvious, but I remember another show where I am convinced the writers had no idea what the hell they were talking about. That show was “Lost” – where an airplane crash lands onto an island and everyone on board struggles to survive as they encounter supernatural phenomenon. The mystery that jaded me the most was the numbers – 8,16,32,64… something like that. I swear they spent an entire season talking about those goddamn numbers, including a flashback where a character won the lottery with the exact digits. Anyways, I finished the whole series and never found out why those numbers were so important. That left me unfulfilled and quite honestly resentful.

What do they mean? Nobody knows. Not even the writers.

It’s easy to write a mystery when you don’t know the answers to the questions you are presenting. Imagine a rabbit starts eating a treat out of a box then suddenly disappears. Ya, obviously there is motivation for you to keep you reading, but the explanation is the pay off. If I tell you that the treat was a magic invisibility pill I’d wager you’d put the book down. But if that rabbit ate a genetically altered carrot that included a chemical composition discovered at MIT by 3 first year engineer majors, and that same composition is theorized to accelerate redox reactions by electrons, you might believe me. It’s incoherrent bullshit, but at least there is a method to the madness. You’d rightfully anticipate a legitimate explanation to how the rabbit disappeared and why that matters. I feel “The Prestige” is a great example of this specific comparison at work. The payoff was worthwhile, despite remaining unrealistic in accordance with real world science.

So as I begin my course with this story I must choose the information the viewer will receive early and the information that will be delayed. But more importantly than that, I must figure out the elements of fear that will make this story a horror. If I fail to find ideas that are terrifying and disturbing than I am better off writing a science fiction thriller. And those scares must occur repeatedly throughout each scene. Dread, however, is an awesome area, as it basically suspense with the anticipation of terror.

This is the end of my post. One day I will discover the correct way to end them.

The Group Scene

The Group Scene/The Dinner Scene/Friends at a table. They each are a variation of the same thing:

4-5 main characters gather at a table and share in a discussion.

Simple, right? Not for a writer. It’s not the complexity of maintaining each character, nor is it the task of inventing an interesting dialogue. The difficulty lies in moving the plot along, building tension, and producing a character change.

Episode 5 currently runs 27 pages (which will translate to roughly 27 minutes). Out of those pages, 19 of them involve a group discussion that takes place at a table. My goal is to condense those 27 pages to 8 and incorporate a riveting midpoint at page 4.

What makes the group discussion unique is that people don’t generally sit around and think up ways to murder each other, as much as we all want to see that. There is not a natural clock with imminent danger when your characters are sitting down and sharing information. And my main character isn’t much of an actionable detective if the other characters he’s sitting with are freely offering up there own personal backgrounds and clues.

One of the best ways to orchestrate a group scene is to implement a relationship triangle. Person A likes B, but B likes C, and C likes A. The more you can entangle the relationships to affect one another the more intrigue you generate. But because my story is not a drama nor a romance, I have to find a way to introduce more tension, higher stakes, and hard-turning plot points – especially since the meat of the episode takes place in a seated arrangement.

Allow me to do some thinking out loud for a moment. I’ll create a dynamic similar to my own and see what areas of conflict and tension we can artificially introduce.

Bob attends a dinner with 4 new people. He was not invited but lied his way into the group. After being welcomed in, the group leader repeatedly challenges Bob to prove his allegiance to the group by taking a shot every time he speaks out of turn. Bob is trying to identify which group member stole his cat.

We see the obstacle – acceptance – and know the objective – information.

Now imagine that out of those 4 new people, Theo is the leader. Theo governs the group with an iron fist – one that Bree feels is too tight. Geronimo – the funny guy in the group – has a secret crush on Bree. When Bob joins the group, Geronimo worries that she will like Bob instead. Kazinski, on the other hand, is obedient to Theo. He believes that Theo’s adherence to group formalities unifies them and makes him deserving of being in charge.

There lives have become more intertwined and more unique. Though this may be hard to follow, it provides a writer with varying character motivations. These motivations will drive each character’s unique reaction to different events.

But we need character actions – what can Bob do to drive the story forward, and what obstacles may he find in his path?

The obvious one is for Bob to be reprimanded each time he speaks out of turn.

What interesting events can follow this? What areas do we have to tighten the conflict and elevate the tension?

Perhaps Bree repeatedly encourages Bob to not respect Theo’s wishes. Perhaps Bob realizes that the only way his cat will come up in the conversation is if he initiates it.

That does add a sprinkle of the conflict and tension, but not a whole lot. Now let’s imagine that each time Bob speaks the group becomes more convinced that he has another purpose for being there. Once this piece of psychological danger is introduced we find a true obstacle to Bob’s objective.

Maybe one of the group members secretly discovers the reason that Bob is there before the others – and tries to notify them covertly. You would be wise to let the viewers in on this secret first to create more suspense.

The tension can escalate by dangling the truth right in front of Bob. How can we put Bob’s cat on the table for him to grab while preventing him from doing so? However we do it, I think this should be the midpoint.

I think Bob should find out that his cat is more happy with its new owner. That creates an internal conflict by allowing Bob to feel guilty and doubt the ethics of his quest – until at the ending when he reunites with his cat he learns he was intentionally mislead.

One way we can place the cat right on the table would be by producing a picture of the animal from an unspecified source. Maybe everyone in the group starts chatting about it and sharing inside information. Maybe they call the cat dumb and insult it in order to instigate Bob into exposing his true intentions.

What action can Bob take to definitively know which group member stole his cat? Once convinced of who its owner might be, Bob may use the individuals want/need to his advantage. Bob can also use blunt force trauma as a method to get a confession. Or he can trick one of his new “friends” into spilling the beans by dangling his own truth – his reason for being there – right in front of them.

Perhaps Bob informs the group that he had deceived them about his intentions within the group. He can say that he purchases missing cats in order to resell them to their original owner. When he tells them that he is offering $500 with no questions asked for the cat in the picture, he finally gets one of them to fess up to their crime. After that he must choose how to punish the individual and still receive the feline for a climactic ending.

So this is the group scene. Nothing about it is inherently interesting, but it is a high-frequency event in most stories. You should never write a scene that does not incorporate multiple story elements just because it “sounds real.” You should always introduce dialogue and actions that divide your group while also gluing them closer together.

I will be tinkering with my own group scene today and just by writing this I have found some new ideas. I think it is a fun challenge anytime you beef up a scene that you have already written. Hopefully this has provided you with your own ideas for how you would like your own group scene to evolve.

On the ‘Prejudice’ of the Writer

I have a difficult time with the current preoccupation with ‘ethnic prejudice’ and the trend to write things as they should be rather than they actually are. For instance, I’m afraid to call my characters ‘the short Italian man’ or ‘the Australian’. These next two topics appear at the surface level to be quite different, but I don’t see them as such.

1.) I in no way as a writer intend to influence people into smoking. However, as a writer, it is my job to understand the truth, and the truth is smoking may just make you look slightly cooler and tougher.

2.) From this, we can derive that the job of the writer is henceforth to write as the mind sees. Therefore, if I write about my character seeing a black man, I must write, ‘A black man approached.’ In the same way, a black man in New York City may see me coming and write, ‘The tourist approached.’

I hope you can clearly see that the issue I am raising does not have anything to do with racism, but properly describing the interpretation of the human mind. There are many today seeking to ‘fix’ this interpretation, but I don’t think the interpretation is really what needs to be changed. For example, the more time my main character spends with ‘the black man’, the more he is known as David, and a friend, and a jackass. Why? Because initially we see things in a very shallow manner, but eventually the truth comes out.

If I wanted to relate this depth to the smoker looking cool, I would show that the cool smoker also has fits of coughs and lives day to day with more stress than one can possibly imagine.

I hope this clarifies my point correctly, and please understand I in no way intend to offend anyone. I just cannot bring myself to write characters who are not true to life.

– Thomas M. Watt