Long-time visitors will notice that a lot has changed around here. I’ve completely rebuilt the site to be easier to use and to provide more information for those wishing to learn about my books. In addition the site allows me to blog some of my thoughts about my books and about the craft of writing. Check back often for new info!
First there were campfire stories–which probably date back to the invention of language. These begat “urban legends”: the Hook, the call coming from inside the house. The Russian scientists who accidentally drilled into hell. Stories without authors, folk tales for a more scientific age. Creepypasta is the direct descendant of that canon. It has its own unique features, true. Typically creepypasta does have a listed author. Like all things in the internet age it competes with itself–stories get ratings, get YouTube reviews. Get followers. Creepypasta generates fan art, and derivative works, and even wikis. Yet creepypasta is experienced best the same way these stories ever were: alone in the dark, shared from friend to friend as a kind of rite of passage. Maybe you can’t toast marshmallows with the light from a touchscreen, but you can still scare yourself silly.
As a horror author I’m fascinated by these stories. So often they’re dismally written and threadbare. Sometimes, though, they pack a terrible, visceral punch in such a short word count. A good creepypasta is like horror haiku.
I want to explore some of the things I’ve learned from reading far too much creepypasta. Below I’ll make reference to many of the stories as if you’ve already read them. If you haven’t, they can be easily googled, so I won’t bother with synopses.
Creepypasta is Fast Fiction
The best pastas are short and to the point. They don’t waste time on deep character studies or establishing mood. You’re already a little scared, clicking the link. That’s enough. We get, typically, a nameless narrator setting up the plot, then a scene or two of rising tension, followed by a big nasty reveal. In many ways creepypasta shares its structure with jokes more than short stories: introduction, complication, punchline. Candle Cove is less than a page, in its earliest (and best) versions. Slenderman is mostly just a couple of forum posts. Longer works like the Russian Sleep Experiment still hold out the promise of a final awful epiphany, but as is the rule in all things, the bigger the buildup the bigger the resolution had better be. Longer pastas are routinely downvoted. Fans come for the quick rush of fear–boring your readers is the kiss of death.
Lots of Villains, No Heroes
Jeff the Killer, Slenderman, the Inverted Mickey of Abandoned by Disney–creepypasta loves its monsters. They tend to be visually interesting (it’s easier to make fan art, that way) and often their mere appearance is enough to scare the narrator into running or screaming or having a heart attack. In fact, we rarely see them at work. Their crimes are often second-hand, mere rumors of atrocity. A bloody mouth or a wild look in the eyes is enough. If we never actually see what they do, our imaginations can run wild–a man with a hatchet is scary, a man chopping up body parts is just, in Raymond Carver’s wonderful phrase, “popular mechanics”. Furthermore it might push focus onto the victim, which is a big no-no in creepypasta. While the killers may be richly, even floridly described the victims and especially the narrators are usually cyphers–they almost never have actual names, nor are we ever told what they look like. They exist on the other side of your computer screen, speaking to you through anonymous media. The fact that the killer pushes through into reality is the scariest thing about them.
Stakes are High, or Pointless
If the protagonist actually wants something in a creepypasta, the stakes in a story tend to be ridiculous, to justify potentially suicidal behavior. In one version of No-End House, you win an astonishing amount of money if you can make it through to the final room (you won’t). Some protagonists, like Orpheus, want to find and restore their dead or missing loved ones (it never works). More often than not, though, there are no stakes at all. Protagonists exist in creepypasta for one reason: to regret their own curiosity–which, of course, makes them us, copies their identity onto the reader who similarly was unwise enough to click on a link they knew would scare them. In many pastas the inciting motive of the “hero” is a simple compulsion. They couldn’t not look, they couldn’t not explore the abandoned Disney park, they couldn’t resist opening that letter with no return address or looking at the one image file on the thumb drive. They exist simply as puppets of fate, victims of a universe that actively wishes their demise.
The Universe is Self-Aware, and it Hates You
If Lovecraft dragged horror fiction into the twentieth century, he did it by throwing away the religious and mystical baggage of the nineteenth. God couldn’t save you from Cthulhu and holy water didn’t kill space vampires. The universe is a cold and uncaring place, and you are contemptibly small. Creepypasta, as the horror literature of the twenty-first century, wants to take it a step farther. The cosmos isn’t just a cold void, it’s also a seething mass of disdain and hatred. There is only one way to survive the events of a pasta, and that is to be left alive so you can tell the tale (and even then, you know the evil hasn’t forgotten you, and your time is limited). Many pastas, like Return to Earth, don’t even allow that level of grace–the narrator is telling his story to no one, watching his own demise creep closer, knowing that no one will ever hear what he says. Reality in creepypasta is fluid, malleable, but it only ever bends one way–toward destroying you. No one in a creepypasta ever learned a spell from the Necronomicon to push the nasty things away. And where Lovecraft saw a kind of hope in ignorance–a delusion that brought blissful sleep–in pastaland the horrors seek you out, through message board posts and text messages. There’s no way to escape, or even deny what’s happening.
Style: Distance and Outsiderness
Creepypasta always comes at a remove. The story you’re reading started with someone noticing a strange link on a web page, or they find hidden files on a game cartridge. Candle Cove’s entire substance is just the narrator remembering a strange television show from their youth. The writers of these stories know that you’re bored with real life. They know you think the world is empty of the supernatural, and so they build a firewall between you and the horror–one which always turns out to be more permeable than you thought. Distancing techniques can also add verisimilitude to a story. The great evolution of creepypasta, the SCP wikia, follows a rigidly anti-entertainment format (there’s a reason the containment procedures come first) and an enforced clinical tone to separate you from the horror. Then it pulls the floor out from under you. It’s a great trick. Because pastas are “documents” that you, the reader, have found you can open them safely, but their very artifactual nature makes them seem more realistic, and therefore less escapable. They force you to engage with, and even participate in, the squick. Creepypasta that eschews the clinical tone has its own distancing technique, one based on reader expectation. The best pastas use their outsider status to great effect. This isn’t some polished story that Stephen King sent to an editor for feedback. This is the breathless recounting of a desperate survivor. A madman’s ravings that no publisher would ever touch. The narrator announces at the beginning that no one would ever believe what he has to say–forcing the reader to enter into a devil’s bargain, the one wedding guest who was forced to listen to the Ancient Mariner.
Conclusions for Horror Writers
Creepypasta is very much an anti-style, a kind of radical reimagining of horror that places it outside the more traditional, more established venues for writing. Channel Zero, SyFy’s attempt to turn pastas into television (just like Freaky Links before it, and a dozen other attempts), misses the central point of the creepypasta format–that it’s something you discover in secret, something you weren’t supposed to see. Not something that gets endless promos and celebrity hype on basic cable. Horror writers can’t just lift creepypasta for their own ends–it’s a type of storytelling that only works in short chunks on a computer screen. Yet there are lessons to take away here, messages from a new wave of horror fandom that has its own values and desires. As horror writers, whether we work in novels or short stories, we’d be foolish not to look at the audience reaction to creepypasta and tailor our work to appeal to this new generation of horror fans. We can respond to the cosmic malevolence of creepypasta, eschewing the more rationalistic horrors of the past. We can examine distancing techniques for use in our own work, and rethink the levels of deep characterization we give to our protagonists (rethink, mind you, not necessarily abandon). If nothing else, creepypasta can serve as wonderful inspiration. I’ve read enough horror novels in my life that I’ve gotten pretty jaded. Evil clowns and zombies don’t really scare me anymore. I’ll freely admit that the pictures of Slenderman did, that Abandoned by Disney got my pulse elevated. Creepypasta works as an incredible laboratory examining what still scares us–and what always will.
Yes, it’s true–you can come see me, David Wellington/D. Nolan Clark, talk and make jokes at NYCC2017!
I’ll be doing a panel on Friday, October 6, 1:30 PM in room 1a24. What will this panel be about, you ask? Here’s the official description from the NYCC site:
The best science fiction novels pull from current events and make readers question Could this terrifying, alternate reality come true? With the resurgence of movies and TV shows like Blade Runner 2049 and The Handmaid’s Tale, great works of dystopian fiction shine a light on global issues that affect and impact us all (socially, economically, politically, and environmentally). Petra Mayer of NPR explores the likelihood of the possible futures envisioned by Paolo Bacigalupi (Tool of War), Amy S. Foster (The Rift Frequency), Lauren Oliver (Ringer), Scott Reintgen (Nyxia), and D. Nolan Clark (Forsaken Skies).
Come by and hear what we have to say! I will absolutely be available afterwards to sign books or just chat. I look forward to seeing you there!
We’re told, almost certainly apocryphally, that one of the earliest movies was of a train heading directly toward the camera, and that audiences who saw it ran for their lives. We’re told that a truly great piece of fiction makes the reader forget they’re reading a book (or seeing a movie, etc.) and immerses them entirely in the secondary world of the story.
I’ve never bought it. Oh, I’ve read plenty of immersive stories in my time, but every single time the thought in my head was not “this is real! If the characters die, I will too!” My typical thought is more along the lines of “oh, this is really good! How can I pull off this same effect in my own work?”
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I know how the sausage gets made. Maybe my insider knowledge of how stories are put together keeps me from enjoying them in the intended manner. I don’t think so, though. I think pretty much every consumer of culture knows the basics of how entertainment is made. The water cooler talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode is often as much about the difference between practical and CG effects as it is “can you believe character X did that to character Y?”
Then there are the commenters. In one of my books I suggested that a given handgun could hold thirteen bullets (you get a prize if you can guess which book this was. The prize is that you briefly made me feel like I exist). I got an email from a reader who told me he had enjoyed the book up to that point, but really, since said gun could actually hold fourteen bullets, he could no longer appreciate my work and would not be purchasing any of my future books. I actually took this seriously and mentioned, in the second volume of the series, that the gun could hold fourteen rounds.
I then got an angry email from a reader saying that if I didn’t know the gun could only hold thirteen bullets, I wasn’t fit to be writing about vampires.
I mention this story because I think it shows that we, as media savvy entertainment consumers, have stopped willfully suspending our disbelief–if we ever did. Just as some people can watch a movie and check their texts at the same time (horrible people), when we read a book we’re never completely lost in the imagined world. We’re always–always–comparing the story to what we know, to what we’ve read before. We run to wikipedia or at least the dictionary if we find concepts or even just words that are unfamiliar in our texts. We discuss our stories endlessly–Chris Hardwick has made a career out of dissecting TV shows the very second they’ve finished airing. I don’t think disbelief enters into the equation at any point.
Instead I think we are actively participating in cultural transmission. Rather than passively submerging ourselves in words and images, we are all, in our heads, remixing them continuously into nuanced interpretations, hot takes, and snarky scorn. We don’t just absorb texts, we study them, mining for ideas for our own work, or at the very least for sick burns we can share with co-workers.
As media becomes more and more integrated into our psychological landscape we become more adept at using it, rather than being manipulated by it (current politics notwithstanding). We always experience texts at a remove, now. But I don’t know if this is purely an artifact of the twenty-first century. I’ve always been interested in mythology, and one of the first questions you end up asking when you read Bullfinch is whether the Greeks really believed that the sun was a chariot with Apollo at the reins. The answer of course is that some people did, while others simply used the story to organize their lives–just as many people today seem unable to understand the news or the actions of their friends without framing them in terms of scenes from Harry Potter. I think this may be something intrinsic in the way we tell stories.
Think of a stage magician’s show. We are told that the magician will saw a woman in half. We watch it happen. Yet only a very small part of our lizard brains actually thinks it’s real. The vast majority of our consciousness is instead devoted to trying to figure out how the trick is done. We engage with the act on multiple levels at once, almost all of them on a metatextual level–we are outside the thing we perceive, aware of factors beyond what the magician wants us to see. The same can be said for every book we read, every television show we watch. Really interesting art often plays with our expectations and our preconceptions. Think of unreliable narrators, antiheroes and stories that break the fourth wall.
When Coleridge coined the term “willful suspension of disbelief” in 1817, he was specifically talking about genre stuff (what he would call “fantastical tales”) being leavened with verisimilitude and human pathos to make it more palatable. His idea was that readers would scoff at fantasy stories unless they were given enough realism to have something to hang onto. I’m not sure if this was true even at the time; I’m certain it isn’t, now.
What’s the takeaway here, for writers? Be conscious, always, of the fact that your reader isn’t reading your work in a vacuum. She has access to endless secondary sources. She can call you on your bullshit, or she can get in a discussion group with hundreds of other people about the details of your fiction. Don’t let that paralyze you, though. Instead, play with it. Withhold details or intentionally provide false information–which you correct later, for dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid of direct address or other techniques which might damage the illusion of secondary reality. But always remember, when you write, you are not alone. You are not screaming your truth into a void. You are contributing one long twitter thread in the culture conversation that began before you were born and will long outlive you.
Was that helpful? Or are you already rolling your eyes, thinking about how I overwrote that last sentence, and how much of this article I got wrong?
99% of all writing advice is just inspirational nonsense. Most of it boils down to “sing the story inside of you!” or “don’t give up on your dreams!” If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told this. If you have the bug, you’re going to write and nothing, not even self-interest, will stop you.
There’s another kind of writing advice, though, which usually gets quoted as gospel truth because nobody every thinks about what it really means. Let’s start with the most famous and most often repeated saying, “write what you know.”
Sounds good, right? Write from your own personal experience, and your stories will breathe with verisimilitude. What if you want to write genre fiction, though? What if you want, specifically, to write about what you don’t know? I can’t count how many times people have told me to write what I know. I try very hard to say thank you and not roll my eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of my head. The whole point of writing for me is to create new worlds. To explore weird ideas. If I only ever wrote what I know, my readers would get very bored, very quickly. The vast majority of my life involves what I’m doing right now. Staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen, while I lift a can of Coke Zero Sugar to my mouth and fail to actually drink from it because I’m too lost in thought.
Do you want to read that book?
Honestly, this piece of advice is impossible to follow. Any story will, at the very least, abstract reality. A writer knows when to skip over vast swaths of lived reality. You throw away all the conversations that amount to:
“What? I didn’t hear you.”
“No, I didn’t–”
You skip the periods of time your character is asleep, or in the bathroom, or just watching television. But beyond mere elision, it’s literally impossible to write from reality. Language is only ever metaphor for describing things taken in by the human senses. No matter how carefully you choose your words, they are symbols, simplified hieroglyphs that represent sensory impressions in your reader’s mind. Except your reader may have very different impressions than you do. Your best attempt to represent your reality will never match up to what the reader experiences in their own head.
Perhaps I’m being a little precious, here. And, to be fair, like most pieces of advice, “write what you know” is actually useful when it’s taken with a grain of salt. It’s very true, for instance, that good writers take cues from their sensory experience when creating even the most fantastical scenes. One of the best bits of imagery I ever came up with was that the queen of an alien species of social insects had breath that smelled like honey. I love that image, and it came from actually getting a jar of honey out of the cupboard and taking a good honest whiff.
But the idea that you can only ever write from personal experience just doesn’t hold up, no matter how much you want it to. Simply because the whole purpose of writing–the reason it was created in the first place–was to catalogue all the things the reader cannot immediately see or feel or hear. Writers do research. We look things up, in others peoples’ books (or, more often these days, on Wikipedia). We draw ideas and images from other stories, or from first hand accounts of things, or scientific descriptions. Maybe the advice should be: “write what you know, or failing that, research the topic until you feel like you know it”.
Finally, to get back to genre writing–how can you “know” what it looks like to fly through hyperspace on the back of a time dragon, or what it feels like to transform into a were-ocelot under a silvery moon? The answer, of course, is that you infer it. You compare it to slightly similar experiences, or you close your eyes and just imagine it. The quality of your writing depends on your ability to then communicate your inference in a way that makes the reader feel it, too.
So maybe the advice should be “write what you know, or what you’ve researched thoroughly, or what you’ve done your level best to imagine given all the mental tools you have available.”
That’s a little long to put into a Facebook meme, though.
I heard a podcast recently where the guest talked about the Magical Realist novel he was working on. The host asked, “is that just a fantasy novel but you don’t want to admit you like geek stuff?” The guest laughed and admitted that was pretty much accurate.
Similarly, you hear a lot of people go on and on about “dream logic” as if it’s an excuse not to have to write a plot for your story, or have characters with realistic motivations.
Neither of these things is remotely true. Oh, it’s true that some writers use these terms as excuses. But they shouldn’t.
Surrealism is a style, not an excuse. It can be incredibly powerful when it’s done right. You look at a Salvador Dali painting of people wearing lobsters on their heads and your first reaction is to laugh. Then you move away quickly, and the image haunts you every time you think about it. That’s not just Dali throwing weird crap on a canvas and calling it art. The whole point of Surrealism, according to its creators, was to tap into the subconscious. To make connections between things that seemed separate. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and almost impossible to do well. When it does work, it’s magic.
“Every dream has its navel,” as Freud almost assuredly didn’t say. I’ve always interpreted this as meaning that any story, no matter how far-fetched, weird, or seemingly dissonant, must contain a connection to reality. At the very least some kind of nod to real, lived experience. Surrealism exists on that thread-like connection, the region where the wild nonsense of chaos bleeds into the stark cold light of day. Great practitioners understand that you have to walk that tightrope to bring back phenomenal stories.
When people talk about Dream Logic they always forget the “logic” part. Or the “realism” in Magical Realism. Let’s look at some of these styles individually, and see where, while they promise chaos and insanity, are actually art at its most carefully controlled:
Dream Logic: Often called “Fairy Tale Logic” as well. In some ways, DL is the opposite of surrealism. It’s the attempt to impose consistent, logical rules onto a nonsensical world, and more often than not, the attempt fails (intentionally). If surrealism is about digging in the deep soil of the Id, DL is about the Superego trying to make sense of a messy room. Alice in Wonderland is dream logic at its finest–Alice is a scientist attempting to solve Wonderland with clear syllogistic logic. The story is about what happens when you push too hard and the crazy thing pops back up behind you. David Lynch is a modern master of DL–Twin Peaks: The Return is a master class in the style. Be careful, though. Readers who expect straightforward narrative will quickly get bored with this “crazy” style. You need to find a way to keep them turning pages.
Stream of Consciousness: Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine is one of my favorite books. It’s the story of a man riding down an escalator, letting his thoughts wander. James Joyce’s Ulysses is often held up as the one and only masterpiece of SOC. It’s not, though. The real master here is Stephen King. King gives some terrible writing advice in his book On Writing: create an incredibly realized character and then just see what happens to them. No one should ever do this. King gets away with it because he has a genius-level aptitude for creating stories out of random events–his brain just naturally gravitates toward a loose, swingy plot, so eventually he gets a book out of his wool-gathering. Do you have Stephen King’s instincts? No? Best to use this for, say, a chapter in a longer work, or just in flashbacks, unless you’re absolutely certain you can bring it back home.
Magical Realism: Argh! No, it’s not just fantasy! It’s a reaction against fantasy! Magical Realism is an attempt to describe the real world–the place you’re living right now–period. The conceit is that the only way to truly explain the beauty and importance of a real place, person, or event is to highlight it with fantastic symbols. Some life events are so big and so impossible to describe that we need metaphors to handle them. The loss of a loved one becomes a story about them growing wings and flying away. But the story, the damned story, is about the loss, not the wings. This might be one of the most misused terms in literary history.
Dadaism: Not just surrealism’s cranky punk rock grandpa. The two movements actually serve radically different ends. If surrealism mines for hidden connections between disparate subjects, Dada is all about breaking apart the established connections of our every day life. A toilet seat covered in velvet is surreal; one covered in spikes is Dada. It forces you to rethink the things you do automatically all day long. A metronome is something you watch. Unless there’s an eye on it, then it’s watching you, pal. A man puts a bicycle wheel on a stool and puts it in a museum. Not just to prove that art is bullshit. No! That was the opposite of the point! The point was to show that objects you encounter everyday become invisible to you. By recontextualizing them they become visible again, which is one of the most jarring experiences you can have. Dada was about iconoclasm, about smashing your face into consciousness.
The last thing to say about invoking surrealism in your work is that it’s dangerous to the writer, first, and the reader, second. The writer who dallies with the unconscious is liable to end up discovering things about themselves–their own personal internal symbol systems, phobias they didn’t know they had. If you find that happening while you’re writing, it’s actually a sign that you’re on the right track. You owe it to yourself to explore those strange feelings. To dig deep and see what you can find. Write crazily. Try automatic writing, where you just type without looking at the screen. Throw a random symbol in your work and see what shakes loose. Just remember–you have to edit it all, later. You have to make it make sense, make sure the reader never feels like you’ve lost control. Whatever happened while you were composing is yours to keep, and doesn’t have to show up on the page.
Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.
Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.
Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.
The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.
There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.
Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.
Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.
Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.
We’re often told that comedy appeals to our intellectual side–our appreciation of wit and timing–while drama appeals to our emotions. Appealing to one or the other is the way to reach an audience, to create a significant effect in the reader’s/viewer’s brain that will cause them to be entertained. Either we need to laugh at the protagonist and his/her futile struggles, or we need to cry for them, to want them to succeed.
I’m a fan of horror stories, though, and it occurs to me that there might be a third axis of effect. A third way to reach an audience. Specifically I’m thinking of the physiological effect. The moment when the movie-goer jumps out of their seat, or the reader closes the book, unable to read further. I don’t think this is an emotional effect. I think it happens faster, in the spinal cord where our reflexes live, not in the brain. This is not sustained fear or dread but the moment of shock, the jolt of pure adrenaline.
As an experiment, I tried to plot a number of types of stories–subgenres of fiction–onto these three axes, to show why we need the physiological category. The graph above shows my work. I like to think of the three arms of the graph, the intellectual, emotional, and physiological effects, as, respectively, the “Aha!” moment, the “Oh, no!” moment, and the “Oh shit!” moment. Every story, in this model, attempts to create one of those effects–or a combination of them.
Different stories–different genres, if you like–aim to achieve different effects. Romantic comedies want us to aspire to the condition of the lover or the beloved, while whodunnit mysteries want us to think that the author is very clever. The most obvious example of the physiologically-oriented story is of course pornography–which wants to create an immediate, physical reaction in the consumer. However I think much of horror–and almost all horror movies–fit in here somewhere as well, in the region between the intellect and the physiological which I’ve labeled as The Shocking.
The story which attempts to evoke shock has a perverse sort of mission–it dares you to stop experiencing the very thing you sought out. It makes you want to cover your eyes so you don’t see the blood-stained axe. It mocks your attempt to make it all the way through a Stephen King novel when it’s already 3 am and you’re alone in that creaky old farmhouse. It doesn’t care about your intellect–you can’t think your way out of a jump scare. It doesn’t have anything to do with love or hate or any of the more nuanced emotions. It just wants to watch you squirm.
Fear, of course, is an emotion, and belongs on a different axis. But “true” fear isn’t what I’m getting at here. Fear sticks with you. It bothers you. Shock, on the other hand, is immediate and cathartic. You jump, your hand goes to your mouth–but then you relax. Your nervous system may be tuned to a higher pitch but you don’t linger on the feeling. True horror fans will not, I think, be surprised to find that I’ve linked shock and pornography here. The distance between shock and fear is the same as the space between lust and love.
Shock and the physiological do not require deep characterization or intricate plot to achieve their end. In fact these things tend to draw us out of the effect. Just as horror comedies always end up being funny but not scary, shock movies with complicated plots always feel wrong–the shock becomes prurient, sprinkled in to keep the viewer awake and therefore less “artful”. No, a good shock moment is one where the plot suddenly becomes meaningless, where the characters turn into nothing more than witnesses to a crime. Shock is an irruption of story, an unexpected moment which offers neither explanation nor apology. It is amazingly effective when done right; when done ham-handedly, nothing feels cheaper or more contrived.
There are horror stories which eschew shock and the physiological effect, of course. Weird fiction comes to mind, a subgenre which puts aside jumping cats and pure gore, instead attempting to achieve an effect of the uncanny–the moment when you realize something is very wrong with the world, something you can’t quite identify. Lovecraft is often held up as the inventor or at least perfector of weird fiction, but he had his moments of relishing the gory and the grotesque–when I put weird fiction on the other side of the graph here I’m thinking more of the abstract horrors of Aickman and Ligotti and the luminous Ramsey Campbell.
Gothic fiction, the predecessor to modern horror, attempted to explore the depths of the pathetic (the term is not meant to be pejorative, but more clinical). A young woman in peril evokes our pity and our hope, but always we know the nasty thing was lurking around the corner, spying on her, and that makes us clench our jaws in anticipation. It’s interesting that the Gothic split, in the early 20th century, into horror and romance, two categories we think of very differently now–but which both attempt to evoke the physiological effect.
I subtitled this piece “notes toward a theory” because I’m still not entirely sure if this model is complete. There may be additional axes. I think there might be a Spiritual axis–stories which attempt to elevate the soul rather than the emotions, though we see so few of those kind of stories these days its hard to say if that element deserves a full dimension on the graph. But I do believe that looking at our physiological response to some stories, especially horror stories, can add new light to our understanding of how stories work.