Posts Tagged ‘character development’

You know, for a little while now, I’ve been pondering something. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to certain stories as “slow burns.” Heck, I even called my friend/colleague Pat Bertram’s book Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare a slow burn mystery when I reviewed it on Amazon (and I highly recommend you read it, BTW). But what exactly makes a story a “slow burn?” Sadly, searching in Google didn’t pull up a lot of information, and I needed a short break from working on Rose (which is going great, BTW), so I thought I’d share my observations on the matter.

So what is a slow burn story? Well, to put it simply, it’s a story that doesn’t try to rush itself or keep escalating things as the story goes on. Instead, the story takes its time getting to the story’s resolution, using an intriguing set up, good characters and character development, and little bumps in the excitement levels to keep readers invested in the story. A good example of a slow burn would be a romance that, instead of having the characters hook up within the first half of the story and then showing them struggle to stay together, or having the characters finally confess and kiss at the end of the story after a number of travails, the story takes its time establishing these characters, the development of their relationship, and then showing the hook up, all without any big drama or too huge plot twists.

Getting an idea for them yet? And you’re probably familiar with a lot of these stories, even if you don’t know it. Many of these slow burn stories are pretty calm for up to the first two-thirds, with little intervals during that time that ramp up the excitement for a brief period, before they have an explosive final third (not always but often). A good example of this is The Shining, both the book and the movie. Unlike other King stories like It, where things are big and scary from the very beginning, The Shining takes its time building things up. It lays the groundwork, showing us these very real characters and their struggles, the isolation they feel, and the true nature of the Overlook. On that final one, King really takes his time. We get brief glimpses of the truth of the hotel, and each glimpse gets nastier every time, but it’s not until the final third that things really hit a head and things become truly exciting.

Another facet I’ve noticed about slow burns (the ones I’ve come across, anyway) is that there’s a sort of reluctance on the parts of the characters. In The Shining, none of the three main characters want to be in the hotel, but they all have to be so they can survive as a family, and it’s with a certain reluctance that the characters, especially Jack, acknowledge that there’s something seriously wrong with the hotel they can’t handle and that they have to get the hell out of Dodge. Dracula is often described as a slow burn, especially in the novel and in the Nosferatu adaptations, and without a doubt the characters are reluctant to be in the machinations of a centuries-old vampire. And in Pat’s novel Madame ZeeZee, the first-person narrator is very much reluctant at first to look into the strange events that occur at the titular character’s dance studio. It’s only as things progress that she finds herself really looking into things.

So that’s slow burns for you. But how do you write them? If I had to guess, I’d think it would have to do with moderation, specifically moderating the amount of excitement in the story. With most other stories, the norm is to build the excitement until the climax of the story when things get really explosive. But with a slow burn, it’s more like you’re doing a mostly flat Richter scale graph with only slight bumps here and there until the very end when things get super exciting (if you decide to write the story that way, that is). Doing that might take some practice, however, so I would recommend doing that practice and just allowing yourself to get good at them. Don’t get upset if you’re not good at it at first; we all start somewhere, don’t we?

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some good slow burns to get a good idea for them, here are some of the ones I’d recommend: The Shining by Stephen King; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (see my review of that novel here); HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (see my review of that here); Final Girls by Riley Sager (see my review for that here); and of course Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare by Pat Bertram, which I reviewed on Amazon. All of them are excellent slow burns, and I can’t recommend them enough. Definitely check them out if you’re curious.

What observations have you made about slow burn stories?

Which slow burns have you read recently? Would you recommend them?

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I’ve just published my first article of the year on the site Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. This time, it’s Backstory isn’t Character, and is in response to some things I’ve seen recently in various works of fiction. That problem, as you can tell from the title, is writers thinking a backstory is the same as having a character with a fully-rounded personality. Um, no it isn’t. And in this article, I discuss why that is and how to avoid it in fiction you write, so make sure to check it out if you’re interested.

In addition, I highly encourage you to check out Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors in full. It is a great website to get advice on writing, editing, publishing and marketing effectively as an independent writer, and it is absolutely free. It’s from authors, by authors, and for authors. Check it out and see for yourself what an excellent resource it is.

So I’ve been working on the outline for a new novel that I plan to write for National Novel Writing Month in November (I know, it’s early for that, but I need to work on something original because I’ve been doing nonstop editing since last NaNoWriMo, and if I don’t work on something new before I work on Rose I’m going to scream). And while I’ve been working on it, building the story chapter by chapter, I had the feeling that there was something missing from the story.

About two nights ago, I hit across what was missing. It was personal problems! Good horror stories often deal with issues that the characters are dealing with both internally and in their own lives! In great horror stories like Cujo and the novel I read and reviewed the other day, the main characters are trying to keep their families alive in some state and not lose their livelihoods in addition to trying to survive rabid dogs or a haunted house. In the TV series Supernatural (which I’ve been binging on lately, it’s so good!), in addition to dealing with evil entities and the oncoming Apocalypse, the protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester have to deal with the fact that they’re brothers, with all the issues that family can have when living and working in proximity, and then some.

And I don’t do enough of that exploring–or indicate that I will be doing that sort of exploring–in the outline for this new project. Which is actually a very big issue if I think about it.

There are several reasons why this is. One is having these personal issues helps the audience identify with the characters. Everybody has problems, and seeing people with relatable issues in their life–recent loss, money troubles, relationship issues, addiction, etc.–even if they’re just characters in a story, make people feel for them. In American Horror Story: Asylum, the character of Lana Winters is thrown into Briarcliff as a patient because she’s a lesbian. We of the present day know she was born that way and there’s nothing wrong with her, but back then, the LGBT community was seen by many as immoral or insane, and faced all sorts of discrimination. This immediately makes her a lot more sympathetic to us than if she was just a regular ambitious reporter, and helps draw us into the story as well as makes us identify with the characters.

Another reason creators explore these deep, personal issues in horror fiction, even when you’ve got everything from ghosts to serial killers to aliens to vampires and everything in-between, is that it keeps the characters interesting and the audience interested. Going back to Supernatural, what would the show be like if each episode was about the Winchester brothers facing a new monster and defeating it, plus a few quips? Well sure, it’d be entertaining for a while, but with no change in that formula things would’ve gotten stale probably ten seasons ago. Part of the draw is seeing these two very-different brothers go through ups and downs in their relationships, figuring out right and wrong in a world full of grey areas and just trying to be good people and good to each other at the end of the day, in addition to stopping the end of the world and all the things that go bump in the night.

And third, we writers like to explore these characters, their problems and traumas, and how the characters deal with them over the course of the story. Some good examples of this come from my own work. If you’ve read Reborn City, you know that protgonist Zahara Bakur doesn’t really start out as heroine material. She’s as far from a Wonder Woman as you cn get. But through the story, I explore both the problems she deals with as a Muslim gangster in an environment that isn’t very nice to Muslims and Zahara’s doubts and fears. And I love doing that, I love watching characters like Zahara grow from someone whom you’d never expect to be a hero to someone whom you’d willingly follow into a tricky situation.

So yeah, exploring personal problems with our characters, whatever those problems are, is definitely something we authors do a lot of. And I need to do it more with this new project I’m working on, even if I’m not picking it up again until September or October. Actually,I’m a little surprised I’m not doing more exploration. There’s a whole big problem with the protagonist’s relationship with another character–let’s just say they shouldn’t be an item for a very good reason–and I’m so not exploiting that enough. I really have to explore how this relationship could mess with the characters while at the same time something evil is attacking the town.

In fact, I’m going to get on that right now. Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear. Hopefully by the time I’m done going over this outline, it’ll be as good as it needs to be for November.

So last night, with no Wi-Fi to distract me (and someone won’t be coming by to fix that until tomorrow, dammit), and with only a few chapters left, I managed to finish up the second draft of Laura Horn, the novel I’ve been editing these past couple of months. This is actually rather extraordinary, because if you remember when I first started talking about editing LH, I was worried that certain elements of the story wouldn’t hold up and I would have to rewrite the whole thing.

Now, if you haven’t heard of LH on this blog yet, it’s a novel I wrote in my third year of college about a girl with a very dark past who becomes involved entrapped in a terrible conspiracy when she comes across some information certain powerful people would kill to keep hidden. It’s got some false-accusation-by-powerful-folks elements, a little Die Hard in the last act, and it all centers around a deeply-troubled teenage girl. Sounds a little crazy, right? And that’s why I worried I would have to rewrite it, so it sounded a little less crazy.

But I decided to try and edit it, see if this story was still salvageable in some form. And over the next couple of months, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Turns out, the story was much more salvageable than I thought. I just had to change certain details, such as how these powerful people try to isolate my main character (big thing in this story, believe me), combine a whole bunch of chapters (I think six chapters were smashed together to make longer chapters that flowed better), chuck out two chapters that were unnecessary after detail changes or were extraneous upon second read, and a few other details here and there. The result was a much better second draft, and I still managed to keep a lot of the details and plot points I wanted to keep. Not bad for a few months’ work.

I also noticed some interesting stuff with the second draft. For instance, there’s the page and word counts: with the first draft, the page count (using 8.5″ x 11″ MS Word pages, using 12-point Times New Roman font) was 356 pages and 94,774 words. Meanwhile, the second draft had 334 pages and 98,498 words. Now take a second look at those numbers. If there are less pages, why are there more words in the second draft?

Well, I’ve been thinking on that, and I think it has partly to do with how my writing style has evolved since I wrote the first draft of LH. As well as changing how I construct the sentences I use to tell my stories, I’ve come to try and limit how much dialogue I use and try to do more introspection. Now, dialogue is important for any story, but it can quickly fill up a page while leaving a lot of blank space. And in Laura Horn, I found that some of that page-filling dialogue was unneeded, especially after some of the chapters from the first draft were combined or cut out of the second draft.

And in place of this dialogue, I ended up putting in a lot more introspective segments, the kind where the characters are looking deep into themselves, figuring out things or reflecting on situations through their own unique lenses. Those segments use a lot of words, and fill up a page while leaving less blank space than before. That explains why there’s less pages but more words (and I have a feeling that this difference may show up even more in the third draft when I get around to that).

So now that I’ve finished the second draft, what’s next for Laura Horn? Well, as always I’ll put it aside for now so when I start a new draft, I can look at it with fresh eyes. And I will need those fresh eyes, since there are a few things even with the second draft I would like to change: I still think I could put in a bit more introspective stuff and get rid of unneeded portions of dialogue. I also wonder if I could bring out more of Laura’s personality earlier in the story and make her more relatable. There are also some portions near the end which are a little melodramatic, and there are places where I feel I could do more to make the reader believe what is happening. We’ll see what happens when I get into that third draft.

In the meantime, I’ll take a look at a few of the short stories for my new collection Teenage Wasteland and polish them up a bit before starting a third draft of my novel/senior thesis Rose. I’ll also be working on the final draft of Video Rage with an editor I’ve contracted to work with, so all those who have been waiting desperately for the sequel to Reborn City can calm down now because I’ll hopefully have that book out later this year. And I’d like to have enough time to do some research for a novel I want to write this November for NaNoWriMo. So yeah, I’ll be busy, and I’m not even getting into the things that normally occupy my life outside of writing.

But hey, I wouldn’t have it any other way, would I? Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear, because I’m going to try accomplish a lot this year, and I’m going to be blogging about it the whole damn way.

Last night as I was dropping off to sleep and feeling happy about setting up that new blog of mine (thanks to everyone who’s already signed up to follow that, by the way), my mind started to wander, as it usually does right before I fall asleep. This time around my mind went to horror stories (yeah, it does that quite often too), and I started to ponder character depth and development in horror stories. At some point I realized that in horror, you often have either characters who are very well-rounded and developed, or you have characters that are little more than archetypes, e.g. the Skeptical Dad, the Final Girl, The Psychic Child, The Expert, etc. And you know what else I realized, what made me get up out of bed and write this revelation down before I fell asleep and forgot? Sometimes these stories require different level of character development, depending on what the story is.

Let me explain. In certain scary stories, such as Stephen King’s The Shining (the book, not that poorly adapted Kubrick film), the characters are more than just archetypes and we get to know them very well. This is because their inner conflicts are just as important to the story as is the outer conflicts happening with the hotel. Jack Torrance is trying to keep his cool and be a good husband and father for his family after so many screw ups, while also fending off his desire to drink and the mental assaults of the hotel. His wife Wendy is trying to keep her family together while also keeping an eye on Jack in case he reverts to bad habits. And Danny, psychic and wise beyond his years, is trying to stay strong and endure the hotel’s attempts to kill him because he knows a lot is riding on his father taking care of the hotel through the winter. How they react to situations and grow as characters is just as important as what is happening within the hotel, so King makes sure they are well-developed.

Part of the terror (in the book, anyway), comes from the conflicts these characters wrestle with inside themselves as well as the ones the hotel sends them.

Meanwhile other stories don’t need as much character development. Take Insidious 3, for example (yes, I’m using the third entry in a horror film series, but bear with me). Besides main character Elise Rainier, most of the characters in the film do not get much character development. In the Brenner family, who are experiencing all these supernatural happenings, you don’t see much beyond the roles they play in the story: Quinn is a pretty girl with dreams of acting and is being victimized by a spirit, her dad Sean is the scatter-brained parent trying to keep his family together through grief and tragedy, and the annoying younger brother Alex is…well, the annoying younger brother. Despite not getting a lot of characterization though, these three characters do actually get some growth in the story: Quinn’s car accident and the spirit attacking her causes her, her brother, and her father to get out of their own little worlds and come together as a family to save Quinn’s life.

And of course, there are those stories that require little or no characterization or growth at all. This is common in slasher films, where the characters are often reduced to archetypes or roles (anyone who’s seen Cabin in the Woods knows what I’m talking about). This also happens in a short story I had an idea for recently (and that I might write as soon as I finish editing Video Rage). In this story, I decided that I wouldn’t spend time going over why the protagonist’s younger brother is a bratty kid or why the antagonists are as freaky as they are. The reason I decided this is because the events of the story are where the terror and intrigue come from, not from any inner growth. This is usually the case with slasher films as well: the events of the story are where we get our terror and excitement from, so more attention is pointed towards telling the story than going over any inner conflicts of the characters.

Half the fun of this show is seeing these two interact with each other.

What I’m driving at here is that how much character development is required from a story depends a lot on where the excitement and fear is coming from and how essential developing a character is in order to keep a reader or viewer invested in the story. In the case of a Nightmare on Elm Street film or the story I mentioned above, we’re reading or seeing the story because we know that the story’s events is where we’re going to get the excitement we paid to read/see. In the case of stories like The Shining or most episodes of Hannibal though, a major reason why we’re investing time into the story is because of the characters, not just what’s happening around them. This is especially so in Hannibal, because most of the conflicts and intrigue comes from the characters, their psychological states, and how they play against one another. We’re there not just because Hannibal Lecter is a famous and charismatic serial killer, we’re also there because we like seeing how Will Graham’s relationship with Lecter changes and evolves over time.

And knowing how much to balance of these two elements–character development and story-focus–is very important. Look at the remake of Poltergeist that came out recently. It was an awful film, and one of the many problems it had was that they tried to insert character development near the beginning of the film and failed miserably. Early on it focused on the dad losing his job and trying to find a new one, as well as mentioned something about the wife being a writer. I think the filmmakers were trying to translate this into an arc where the family tries to stay together and come together through rough circumstances, but ultimately the whole thread of the dad looking for a job and the parents trying to keep the family together fails to really get resolved or come together and ends up feeling unnecessary to the story. You’d think that it would just be enough to say the dad got promoted or transferred or a new job and leave it at that!

So whether it’s a zombie flick, a novel about a haunted house, or a psychological horror TV show, knowing the balance between character development and story-focus is just as important as creating a memorable and creepy villain or writing the story in such a way so that the story actually remains scary rather than goofy or just plain stupid (*cough* Friday the 13th remake *cough*). If you do, you’re more likely to write a good story worth remembering than you are to write garbage that horror fans sift through trying to find a nugget of gold.

I’ll certainly keep the balance in mind with the next story I write.