25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Scary Stories

With Geoff Berner, Gail Bowen, Anthony De Sa, R.S. Fleming, Stacey May Fowles, Nicole Lundrigan, Christian McPherson, Andrew Pyper, Diane Setterfield and Paula Weston

Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought it might be fun this month for Fiction Craft to ask a group of authors the question: What role does fear play in your storytelling?

Fear is the great motivator, both for characters and readers. In real life we hate fear, but in fiction we love it and it is essential. In fiction, characters must have fear of something bad happening if we are to find their story compelling. As readers, this is what impels us to read. We share the fears of the characters and hope they overcome them. But on another level, writers can generate fear in readers that does not exist in the characters. This is called suspense. Suspense is created when the reader knows something bad is going to happen, but the protagonist does not know. In my novel Snakes & Ladders, I wrote a scene early in the story in which three characters discuss something they are going to do that will have a terrible impact on the novel?s protagonist, Paige. The three characters don?t know that their plans will impact Paige, and Paige does not know about their plans. But the reader knows, and that sets up suspense -- a fear in the reader for what might happen to Paige. This is a very powerful tool and when used properly it can create tremendous narrative drive, keeping the reader turning pages as the horrible event gets closer and closer. For me, fear is essential for storytelling, if there is nothing to fear there is nothing to lose, so why are we reading this story? Only when something valuable is at stake, does a story become worth telling.

Now let?s find out how some other authors get spooky.

 

Geoff Berner is author of the novel Fesitval Man. He lives in Vancouver, BC

My first novel, Festival Man, is about a half-crazed, hard-drinking music "manager". He is disorganized, dishonest, and difficult to work with. He despises most popular music, and has contempt for most of the people in the music business. Some people will tell you that deep down, we're all the same, and we all fear the same thing. But it's not true. There are people who have no fear of saying the wrong thing, pissing off the wrong people, who truly don't even seem to fear death. They fear boredom, and being bored. Once I got hold of the character of Campbell Ouiniette, this man who fears different things than most Canadians, and set him loose among the sheep, I had my story.

Desire/fear, fear/desire. I guess that's what drives people. I'm trying to capture the feeling of being part of this strange world of strange music that I fell into a long time ago. I guess I have a fear that these extraordinary, possibly somewhat broken, beautiful people will be forgotten once they pass out of the world. And I have a fear that they may come to believe that they deserve to be forgotten. The three-novel series that I'm one-third through is an act of love for certain people, and a memorial for a special way of being that they represent. I'm writing it out of a desire to make them keep on living long after they're gone. So I guess I fear that they will be forgotten. And I also fear boredom more than pissing people off.

 

Gail Bowen is author of numerous works of fiction including the novels The Gifted, Kaleidoscope, Deadly Appearances and A Colder Kind of Death. She lives in Regina, SASK.

This is an intriguing question because it forces me to realize how often I use universal fears to drive my work. In my first novel, Deadly Appearances, Joanne is plagued by an odd and erratic illness that even her doctor dismisses as menopausal fancy. The fear of knowing the truth but of not being believed is a powerful narrative tool. In my second novel, Joanne?s love for Nina, the woman who was always there when her own mother rejected her, blinds Joanne to the fact Nina is a monster. Repeatedly, she ignores evidence of Nina?s narcissism and manipulation. As readers, we fear that by the time Joanne realizes the truth, it will be too late. Joanne is an academic and a political activist. She is smart, self-aware and resourceful, but she is vulnerable through her extended family. Joanne?s life is powered, in large part, by the awareness that she can never fully protect those she loves from the pain of being alive. She frequently quotes a line from Francis Bacon. ?He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.? It is a truth that is very close to her heart.

 

Anthony De Sa is the author of the novel Kicking the Sky and the short-story collection Barnacle Love. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Fear is what essentially drives storytelling. From a very early age we begin to understand what fear is, without anyone really teaching us. It?s the mean kid in the schoolyard we avoid; the way an adult?s face twists when they yell; it?s the places that don?t make us feel safe; it?s wanting more of something but not quite sure how to get it. As a writer, I tap into those very same worries I?ve always felt?as a child, and even now as an adult. I parcel them out to my characters, keeping in mind the simple rule that there are two ways to deal with fear: confronting the terror, outright, or running away?seeking a safe spot or person that will help calm the anxiety or at the very least shelf it for another day, convince ourselves we?ll be stronger, braver, next time. But apart from driving plot, as a writer, I?m more fascinated with a world that doesn?t stop to observe us in those fragile moments. It continues around us, sometimes brutally or arrogantly ignoring our human need for security, comfort, love.

In my new book, Kicking the Sky, my twelve-year-old protagonist, Antonio, witnesses his parents turning a blind eye to the dangers infecting their neighborhood. When Antonio discovers that no one is taking care of him, he revels in his freedom, which becomes a danger as well. It is a world where there is much to fear?the reader recognizes this?but a boy feels a surge of invincibility and the tension between the rewards and consequences of independence plays a more vital role.

I believe a reader participates in the storytelling, immersed in a world that I?ve created, but only they can assess whether their own anxieties and fears have stopped them from achieving their goals. I?m not sure this is completely true but I?d like to think that when someone reads my book they imagine their own futures, create their own stories.

 

R.S. Fleming is author of the novel Kate Tattersall Adventures in China. He lives in Prince Edward County, ON.

Fear is huge in what I write. All emotions are important when crafting a tale, but fear takes so many forms and taps into the primal survival instincts of fight or flight, that it takes priority over love, rage, joy, &c. There are those who are wild and reckless, but I have never met anyone who is truly fearless. The expression of the varying levels of characters' fears hopefully draws a reader in, and allows them to comprehend the situation. I believe people can easily understand fear, because we experience it so frequently, perhaps more than any other emotion; from being startled, to worry, to horror, to panic. (Daily occurrences like a dog bark, a child not arriving home on time, or a close call with a crazy driver on the highway!) Thank goodness we can dispel a whole day of angst with one good laugh, and I like to use that restorative aspect of human nature at the end of traumatic chapters.

For me, the characters overcoming or succumbing to fears often makes up the largest portion of a story, all other conflicts secondary. To make it ring true, I try to use my own experiences to describe how thoughts and feelings would be displayed by actions and spoken words. Of course this has to be considered in regards to the ages and backgrounds of the personae. There may be a dozen contrasting personalities to convey in any situation, with everyone behaving differently. Children attempting an obstacle course would react in varied ways, with some generally confident but apprehensive, others perhaps terrified. On an extreme level you might be examining a dire confrontation, like the first time experiencing combat. What great opportunities to use minor characters as foils for the protagonist, and reveal growth or digression in how they deal with daunting circumstances throughout the story. I hope readers can recognize themselves in a portion of the fears described, and to weep at defeats, and cheer the victories. To entertain and captivate, expressing fears provides a base emotion with which to empathize.

 

Stacey May Fowles is the author of the novels Infidelity, Be Good and Fear of Fighting. She lives in Toronto, ON.

I was really drawn to this question because?though some people have kindly pegged me as ?brave? and ?fearless? because of the subject matter I like to tackle?in my private life I?m actually pretty terrified of so manythings, most of which are completely irrational. Meteors falling from the sky, salmonella, sitting with my back to the door, falling in the shower, pigeons. I also think that kind of anxiety may not only be the driving force in my life, but also in my writing.

On a basic level, there?s real terror that pushes me to meet deadlines (fear of disappointing people,) and that pushes me to produce, (fear of disappointing myself,) but fear also seems to be the preoccupation and motivation for so many of the characters in the novels I write. It?s the feeling that drives them to action, makes them fall in love, makes them run away, makes them act out and make mistakes in dramatic, compelling ways?which is, of course, great for fiction.

While I certainly don?t think living in fear is a healthy or desirable thing?trust me, I spend a lot of time and money trying to overcome it?I do think it is a very human thing, and that it?s certainly worth examining in fiction. It touches everything we do and is in every part of our lives. It can protect us and keep us safe, and it is an instinct that we should listen to. But it?s also one that can overcome us, trap us, and cause us to make wrongheaded choices. I have to wonder whether or not most of my writing is not just a product of me trying to figure out what exactly it is we?re all so afraid of, and whether or not we should be.

 

Nicole Lundrigan is author of the novels The Widow Tree, Glass Boys, The Seary Line, Thaw and Unraveling Ava. She lives in Toronto, ON.

I?ve been thinking about this question for days, and I?m still no closer to any sort of answer. There is plenty of fear in my writing (fear of losing love, fear of dying, fear of communicating, fear of connecting), but what role does it play? I don?t intentionally introduce fear with some sort of objective in mind. I don?t try to write shorter sentences or choppier dialogue when times get tense. I don?t work to make something suspenseful or exciting. I just tell the story.

For me, the trick in capturing fear is recognizing the story has absolutely nothing to do with me. I view myself as a non-judgemental, passive observer, and my job is to record the events as accurately as possible without making a single sound. I don?t cough when the character is about to step on a nail, I don?t roll my eyes when he or she tells a dumb joke, and I don?t throw up my hands when important words are left unspoken. (Well, I might, actually, but my characters are completely oblivious to it.) In order to write fear, I have to know what will happen and also forget what will happen. I have to take my character through an experience, and while I may be aware of what?s lurking around the corner, I must remember my character doesn?t.

Fear is a strong emotion and when a character experiences fear, it brings about a degree of honesty and clarity. If I had to pinpoint a role fear plays in my writing, I would say it exposes a deeper truth of my characters. During those intense moments, whatever the character reveals or conceals takes on greater meaning. Fear also plays another role. I tend to work late at night when I?m generally ready to fall down and sleep. Writing something that is a little sinister keeps me alert. Perhaps that?s the most important role. Without fear, there would be no writing. There would also be much less insomnia.

 

Christian McPherson is the author of the novels Cube Squared and The Cube People and the short-fiction collection Six Ways to Sunday. He lives in Ottawa, ON.

Will someone untie the poor girl on the tracks before she is run over? Will the hero be able to white-knuckle hang on to the edge of the cliff? Keep reading to find out! Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy gave us the serialized cliff-hanger. Bless their cotton socks. Fear, it?s what keeps the pages turning. It?s the fear of what could happen, the potential for a disaster, the possibility of being caught doing something clandestine, etc. Fear keeps most readers and viewers going in books and films. It?s what motivates me, literally. It?s my own fear of death, not death itself, but the running out of time to write stories down which keeps me going. I?m on a clock and I?m not sure when the batteries are going to run out. Type, type, type.

I don?t think I have consciously used fear though, at least not until recently. I haven?t written a horror book yet, so I haven?t been deliberately trying to scare my reader. ?Suspense? is a better word I would use to describe the sort of feeling I?ve tried in the past to invoke in my reader. Suspense is fear?s younger sister, less cruel, but far more interesting. In my first published book of short stories I used suspense to move plots along ? the potential for violence often loomed. People are curious by nature and most people want to find out what is going to happen to a character, especially if the character feels real to them. If you put a character in harm?s way, it?s far more exciting than reading a hundred page description of a gothic church. Nobody wants to read long descriptions of things.

I?m currently working on my first thriller. I?m deliberately trying to create an exciting read, something that will grab the reader and will not let them go because they want to find out what is going to happen next. I often put my character in harm?s way for this reason. As I?m reaching the end of the book I find myself typing faster and faster wanting to get to the conclusion - I can?t wait to find out how it?s going to turn out (wink!).

 

Andrew Pyper is author of numerous works of fiction including the novels The Demonologist, The Guardians and The Killing Circle. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Fear is both something I want the reader to feel in reading my fiction as well as something I need to feel myself in order to write it. As for the latter, this fear isn?t necessarily related to the threat or villain of the story (though I ought to find these things scary for sure) but derives from some form of writerly challenge, attempting something risky, a structure or topic or voice you?re not sure you can pull off. The fear of failure, in other words.

The other fear ? that which, in writing the kind of novels I do, I hope the reader to experience ? is a matter less of conjuring the nastiest monster or most gruesome scene, but of immersion. If I?m able to involve the reader in the emotional or psychological texture of a given moment in the story, then the scare itself can be as subtle and restrained a thing as the turn of a doorknob or scratch at the window. My father, an avid golfer, always used to say that the secret to the golf swing wasn?t to hit the ball harder, but to slow down and let the club do the work for you. I think of suspense and fear in storytelling the same way, except the reader?s imagination is the club, an instrument designed to do amazing things and requiring you to merely guide it toward the moment of contact.

 

Diane Setterfield is author of the novels The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black. She lives in Yorkshire, UK.

There?s a particular challenge inherent in telling a frightening story, and it all hinges on the ending. Any story needs to satisfy and satisfaction implies a certain completeness. The denouement of traditional storytelling brings a pleasurable sense of resolution. But a ghost story worth its salt doesn?t go to all the trouble of destabilising our sense of what the world might be only to throw all that effort away with a conclusion that smooths it all over and makes it all right again. Long after the book is closed, it continues to haunt, and it does this because it leaves just enough unexplained.

How then do you balance the needs of a satisfactory denouement and pleasurable sense of resolution against the need to haunt with an ending that leaves something chillingly unresolved, unexplained, unexplainable?

There is a style of ghost story that achieves this by presenting itself with a double face. Bellman & Black can be read as a psychological study of workaholism. There are a lot of what and why questions that it answers perfectly satisfactorily: What are the consequences of turning your back on your past? Why does Bellman work so hard? Why does he neglect the things that matter? Why can?t he fall in love again? What could he have done differently to have a better outcome? His story permits satisfactory answers to these questions and more, and this ? I hope ? gives the reader the satisfying sense of an ending. That pleasurable sense of completeness. The other face of the story, the aspect that can be left mysteriously, unsettlingly open is the How. (How could a rook?? But to say too much here about that would be to spoil the story and I won?t do that).

And beyond that, I prefer it when, in a ghost story, there is a justification in the real world for the things that remain unexplained in the world of the story. If you are going to unsettle the reader, let it be about something that matters. Depression is real, and surely that?s scary? Things that go bump in the night frighten me, but my fear of insomnia whilst different in kind is equally unsettling. Do ghosts exist? No. But death does, and that is real enough to haunt all of us.

 

Paula Weston is the author of the novel Shadows. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Fear plays a significant role in the Rephaim series ? on a number of levels. The story is told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Gaby who (in the first book, Shadows) discovers she?s not who she thinks she is, and that she may have done something potentially disastrous a year ago. She?s caught in the middle of a conflict she doesn?t remember, with unseen threats coming from all sides.

On a very simple level, Gaby fears for her safety and the safety of those she cares about. There are half-angels, demons and hell-beasts out to hurt her and more than once, she has to deal with the fight-or-flight issue. Then there are deeper, more pervasive fears about identity and belonging: who she was and what she might have done in the past ? and what that means now.

Gaby also discovers that the twin brother she?s been mourning for a year may not be dead, and that her memories of him are as fabricated as everything else she remembers about the past. In Shadows, she?s afraid to hope that Jude is alive, afraid to go through the pain of losing him all over again. In the second book, Haze, she deals with the fear of what might happen if he is alive. Will he be the brother she loves and remembers or will he reject her because she?s not who she?s supposed to be? Throughout the series, Gaby?s biggest challenge is learning to push through her fear and find the strength to protect the people around her, and to trust herself.

For me, the challenge as a writer is to authentically capture both levels of fear ? the physical and the emotional. My approach for the former is to describe what?s happening for Gaby physically. For the latter, it?s about how her fear affects her decision-making and her reactions to the people around her. The Rephaim series is written in first person, present tense, which helps create a sense of immediacy for physical threats, and intimacy for those on a deeper, emotional level.

I think fear works best on the page when it exists between the lines. I want readers to feel Gaby?s fear, not simply because I?ve shown it in the moment, but because they are so submerged in the story, their reaction is inevitable. (In the same way I want them to laugh, gasp and cry at appropriate moments....)

 

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SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books in June 2013. shaunsmith.ca

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