In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.
(Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)
A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.
Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:
This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.
Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:
This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.
Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:
Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.
Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.
This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.
Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)
When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.
Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:
When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.
Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2
When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.
Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:
This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.
The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.
Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)
This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.
Distinguishing Between the Two:
Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening? To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.
If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.
Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.
One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.
Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:
There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.
A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.
Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.
Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.
Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”
In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.
So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?
If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.
- You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense. A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
- A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
- A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.
Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:
- The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
- A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
- Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.
One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:
- Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
- The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
- The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.
The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.
Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
How do you find the time to write?
Can you be a writer when you have a full-time job?
Or a family?
I have a brilliant story idea but I’m just so busy…
The above are all questions are just a few ways people have essentially asked me “how can I be a writer if I don’t have time?” Every time I hear it I have a mixed reaction. I like it because it shows that these people understand that writing is a craft that takes time and work and dedication. It shows they respect that it doesn’t just magically happen. As a writer, I appreciate that because many, many people think writers just throw some words on a page, easy as pie.
On the other hand, I absolutely abhor the question. The reason I dislike it is because writing is like anything else someone wants to do, if they really want to do it they find the time. There’s no magical secret to how writers find time to write, they just make it happen.
That being said, I know some people will still want ideas for finding time to write, so here are some ways I find time to write when I am slammed with other life responsibilities:
If you really want to write, then you’re going to have to find the time elsewhere. If you don’t want to cut back on work, hobbies, free time, etc., then your other option is to cut back on sleep. Either get up an hour earlier, or go to bed an hour later, and use that time to write. You don’t have to do it every day, even an hour a week will add up in the long-term. The point is, the time has to come from somewhere and sleep is something everyone can cut back on now and then without too much consequence. So pick a day a week to try it and go from there.
Can you eat lunch and type at the same time? How about when you’re watching a movie or listening to music? Can you talk while you do household chores? What about when you’re driving or hiking or whatever your hobby is? When I’m on long road trips I use a tape recorder to plot and outline, develop characters, and sometimes even write a few pages. You can do this while out and about doing things like hiking and such as well. I know several authors who do this, and some even send the audio out to be transcribed for them to make things easier. It takes some adjustment to get used to writing in this fashion, and it’s not always your best writing, but getting something down on the page so that the next time you have a break you can revise it makes for better progress than not writing at all.
Every Spare Minute
Basically, this is the main option. Every spare minute you have you try to write. Even if it’s just you wake up in the morning and jot a line down, take a shower, jot another line, eat breakfast, jot a line, go to work, jot a line a lunch, work some more and jot a line again a dinner and before bed. If you do that all day you should at least have a paragraph if not a whole page. Writing is done one word at a time, and while it’s not the most efficient method for writing, the little lines add up throughout the days/weeks/months and before you know it you’ll have a finished piece of work. So anytime you can add another word, sentence, paragraph, and so on, you should.
I know the above advice is nothing brilliant or even particularly new, but sometimes as writers we all need reminders that if we want to write, we have to find time for ourselves. There’s no magic secret or perfect writing opportunity that’s going to appear in your schedule. You use the time you have, any way you can, using any medium available, to get words on the page. Yes, it may not be efficient or look anything like the “dream writer’s life” but you’ll be writing, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t write.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
This is the longest book review I have ever written. This book was so packed full of useful information for rising authors and screenwriters that I felt I needed to cover it all. If you are an upcoming horror author or screenwriter, trying to figure out how to get a foot in the door or where to start in the matter of launching your career, Horror 101: The Way Forward offers “career advice by seasoned professionals”. Different writers will find different essays useful, so I’m giving you a rundown on all the informative essays included.
Compiled by Crystal Lake Publishing, this collection of essays has something for every writer. The anthology features quotes from the masters such as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack London, Clive Barker, H.P.Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe and many others. Advice from professional writers and editors covers all aspects of the horror writing business, and the business of writing, in general. From submitting your work, to marketing and promotion, to self-publishing and building your writing business, to crafting your work and the writing process.
The answers to many questions on the topic of submissions and all other aspects of writing as a business are found within its pages. Not getting positive response from your queries? First read Rejection Letters – How to Write and Respond to Them by award winning author Jason Bark, which offers an attempt to write a rejection letter that doesn’t sting, (at least, not so much). Then, flip to Seven Signs that Make Agents and Editors say “Yes!” to learn what agents and editors look for. Buttoning Up Before Dinner by horror author Gary Fry also offers advice to put you in the good graces of publishers and editors and create well-written stories.
Unsure how to submit your work? Submitting Your Work: Read the F*****g Guidelines by freelance writer and editor John Kenny offers tips for making a professional submission from an editor’s perspective. And What a Short Story Editor Does by horror, fantasy and science fiction editor Ellen Dallow explains the responsibilities of short story editor.
Looking for sound career advice? Be the Writer You Want to Be by television writer and novelist, Steven Savile recycles the best writing advice the author was ever given. The Five Laws of Arzen by award winning dark fiction author Michael A. Arzen offers hints to help you survive a writing career. How to Fail as an Artist in Ten Easy Steps: A Rough List Off the Top of My Head, by Confirmed Failure… by horror author John Palisano provides a reverse list of things you should do to be a successful writer.
Wondering if you need an agent to get your work in front of editors and publishers? Do You Need an Agent? by author Eric S. Brown is a discussion about the need, (or not), for an agent and relates the personal experience of how the author became successful without one. Also included are essays on building your writing business in Balancing Art and Commerce by author and screenwriter Taylor Grant , offering a look at various mediums one can write in and earn a living & advice in the business of writing. There are even essays offered on the lucrative business of ghostwriting, with a personal experience as a ghostwriter shared by dark fiction author Blaze McRob, and Ghostwriting: You Can’t Write it if You Can’t See It by award winning author Thomas Smith instructs on how to step into the author’s shoes and write like them.
If you are hoping to find some help muddling through the vast world of marketing and promotion, The Year After Publication by horror & thriller novelist Rena Mason offers an account of what to expect once you publish your first book and a walk through the exhaustive process of book marketing. How to be Your Own Agent, Whether You Have One or Not by horror writer, editor and publisher Joe Mynhardt offers tips for marketing your stories and yourself. Reviewing by founder of Ginger Nuts of Horror, (one of the most viewed resources in horror fiction), Jim McLeod discusses getting your book in the review pile & what the writer should do while awaiting publication of the review.
If you’ve not attended a conference or convention before, Pitch to Impress: How to Stand Out From the Convention Crowd by editor R.J. Cavender provides a guide to making a pitch that will snag agents’ and publishers’ attention. Tips for networking at conferences are offered by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner in You Better (Net)Work, and Networking at Conventions by Bram Stoker Award winning author Lucy A. Synder offers a look at the benefits conventions have to offer and a breakdown on some of the major ones for horror writers.
There is a plethora of advice offered on publishing, including a comparison of traditional publishing vs. digital publishing in Weighing Up Traditional Publishing and Ebook Publishing by award winning author Robert W. Walker; Publishing by editor and publisher Simon Marshall-Jones compares publishing in the digital arena with the way it was done in the past & how to become an independent publisher; and Glenn Rolle Toes the Line with Samhain Horror Head Hancho, Don D. Auria by Glenn Rolle with Interview that maps Auria’s rise to the top.
The arena of self-publishing is also explored in Make Your Own Dreams by horror and suspense novelist Iain Rob Wright. Besides being a plug for self-publishing’s evening of the playing table. It relates personal experience and advice for self-publishing, walking us through the self-publishing process. Self-Publishing: Thumb on the Button by author Kenneth W. Cain gives a list of things to think about before you choose to self-publish.
Also included are essays on the different mediums for horror: Poetry and Horror by Blaze McRob, and Horror for Kids: Not Child’s Play by novelist Francois Bloemhof offers guidelines for writing horror for youth. Several essays on comics and screenwriting, (one of the biggest outlets of horror today), are also included.
Horror Comics – How to Write Gory Scripts for Gruesome Artists by novelist Jasper Bark discusses the craft of writing horror comics and the relationship between writer and artist. Some Thoughts on My Meandering Within the World of Dark and Horror Art by artist Niall Parkinson offers thoughts on creating dark and horror art. So You Want to Write Comic Books… by novelist C.E.L. Welsh discusses what goes into the making of a comic book.
From Pros to Scripts by author and screenwriter Shane McKenzie talks about the many challenges of screenwriting. Writing about Films and For Film by award winning writer, editor and screenwriter Paul Kane gives the story of the author’s rise to success and tips for learning the lingo of the business. Screamplays! Writing the Horror Film by award winning author and screenwriter Lisa Morton offers the basics of screenwriting, description and dialog, and tips for getting your screenplay made into a movie. Screenplay Writing: The First Cut is the Deepest by author, director and editor Dean M. Dinkel recaps of the author’s experience at the Cannes Film Festival.
Essays on writing a digital world include Running a Webserial, or How to Lose Your Mind, One Week at a Time by Southern author Tonia Brown, providing a brief history of serials and a rundown of what goes into running one on the web; Friendship, Writing, and the Internet by Bram Stoker Award winning novelist Weston Ochse with reflections on online connections with like-minded writers, and Audiobooks: Your Words to Their Ears by horror novelist Chet Williamson discusses what it takes to create and audiobook and what to expect from the effort.
Of course, there is also plenty of advice on crafting a quality story. What is Horror? by author and novelist Graham Masterson offers general writing advice which could be applied to any genre and instructs on how to push your writing to the edge. The Journey of “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears” by author Richard Thomas takes us on a walk through of the writing, editing and submissions process of a story. Writing Short Fiction by horror and thriller novelist Joan De La Haye offers tips to tighten your writing and move the story forward, and discusses where to look to sell your story and how to choose where to submit. Ten Short Story Endings to Avoid by Scottish horror novelist William Meikle supplies a valuable list, if you want to avoid having readers feel cheated. From Reader to Writer: Finding Inspiration by publishing and editing consultant Emma Audsley offers advise for attacking the blank page. Writing Exercises by horror writer Ben Eads provides exercises in description and dialogue. Writer’s Block by short fiction writer and novelist Mark West discusses how to keep the creative juices flowing. Editing and revision are covered with Editing and Proofreading by author and editor Diane Parking presents good reasons not to send out a first draft, and How to Dismember Your Darlings – Editing Your Own Work by Jasper Bark gives a brief guide on how to self-edit.
A few essays outline the needs of a writer and suggestions on how to meet them. Filthy Habits – Writing and Routine by Jasper Bark offers a look at the benefits of creating a daily writing routine. A Room of One’s Own – the Lonely Path of a Writer by horror and fantasy writer V. H. Leslie discusses the need for solitude and space to write in. Writing Aloud by screenwriter and author Lawrence Santoro outlines the benefits of reading aloud as a part of the writing process.
Also included are Partners in the Fantastic: The Pros and Cons of Collaborations by novelist Michael McCarty, which looks at the views of various authors on collaborations, and Writing the Series by series author Armand Rosamilia, which explains why Rosamilia writes series.
Several essays offer advice specific to writing in the horror genre. Making Contact by award winning novelist Jack Ketchum discusses how to turn what you know into a horror show. Bitten by the Horror Bug by horror author and screenwriter Edward Lee looks at what motivates us to write horror. Reader Beware by author Siobhan McKinney explores the role fear plays in horror. Bringing the Zombie to Life by author Harry Shannon maps out four components of a good zombie story. The Horror Writers’ Association – The Genres Essential Ingredient by author and President of the Horror Writers’ Association (HWA), Rocky Wood gives a rundown on the HWA.
What’s the Matter With Splatter? by horror writer and Vice-President of the AHWA, Daniel I. Russell discusses the use of blood, gore and splatter in horror fiction or screenwriting, gives tips on how to use it to gain the desired effect, and discusses why some gore doesn’t get a second thought. Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death by British horror writer Ramsay Campbell defines good horror fiction & emphasizes originality. The (Extremely) Short Guide to Writing Horror by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner offers an introduction to writing horror, including techniques and brief definitions, and a list of good resources for horror writers. Growing Ideas by horror writer Gary McMahon offers a look into the author’s writing process. Writing Horror: 12 Tips on Making a Career of It by horror novelist Steve Rasnic Tem instructs on building your own writer’s toolbox and advice for entering the profession of writing horror. The Cheesy Trunk of Horror by international best selling author Scott Nicholson provides a look at both writer and reader perspectives on horror and dark fiction. Class: Vaginas in Horror by science fiction, urban fantasy and horror novelist Theresa Derwin offers an overview of women in the horror industry. And the afterward by Crystal Lake Publishing’s editor, Joe Mynhardt, includes his own advice for writing horror.
Horror 101: The Way Forward is based on the sound advice of seasoned professionals that is useful to horror writers in any stage of their careers. I recommend it with four quills for anyone who wants to write horror in either fiction or screenwriting.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Welcome to the first Monthly Writing Memo! So for my own blog, Author the World, I’ve been thinking about doing a post about villains. As those of you who have been following know, I’ve been studying horror as I work on my horror film script. During this process, I’ve been wondering about the different types of villains, which in turn made me wonder about the different types of heroes in stories. So for this Month’s Writing Memo, I thought I’d do a post about heroes, and then later this week my post on villains will be up on Author the World.
In general, I think all heroes can really be broken down into a few main types, and every hero in a story usually falls into one of them. The way I’ve divided them up is by what motivates them rather than what they specifically do, or how they go about being a hero.
- The Savior –
The Savior is someone who actively tries to be a hero. They want to help people and save the day, so they seek out ways they can do this. The most obvious example of this is many superhero stories where characters like Superman or Spiderman actively seek out those in danger to help them. These characters do it solely because they want to help people and be a hero. Some want recognition, some want the satisfaction of saving people, but either way the thing that drives them is the need to be the hero. It’s a compulsion almost, and when they don’t just help when they see someone in danger, they actively seek the danger (and the victims) out.
- The Soldier –
The Soldier is similar to the Savior in that they feel the desire to help people, but the soldier does it out of a sense of duty and honor. That’s not to say they don’t have other motivations as well, but this character type is driven by the sense that it is their responsibility to help people, and they must take action. I think if you look at the movie “Die Hard” you’ll see John McClane fits into this character type. Yeah, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he is also a police officer and when he sees the problem he feels it is his duty to take action. Many of these character types are those military or police type characters, or have other positions that are focused on helping people in some way. Some other example jobs that a character can have to fit this role include teacher, doctor, or even counselor/therapist.
The goal of this character is to do their “job” and help people because they think it is their responsibility and duty. Maybe it can cross over into the Savior role of feeling driven to help people, but the slight distinction is where the Savior would say “I helped because they were in trouble,” the Soldier would say “I helped because it was my job/responsibility to help.”
- The Mercenary –
The Mercenary Hero doesn’t necessarily have to be getting paid, though some form of payment is generally the motivation for them to be the hero. They are a hero because they get something out of it. An example of this is are characters like Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure. That is a personal mission for him and he doesn’t do it for anyone else, he does it for largely selfish reasons—he desperately wants the truth and the excitement of discovering the treasure.
The Mercenary is driven by what he/she personally gets out of being the hero. They can be paid to do the job, they can be on a personal mission of love or vengeance or profit, but whatever it is they are being the hero because it serves them, not because they want to serve the people they are saving.
- The Reluctant Hero –
The Reluctant Hero is one of my favorite types of heroes to write because they don’t try to be perfect, and often try to extricate themselves from the drama, but they morally feel the urge to help when they see a situation. Unlike the Savior they won’t seek out the conflict, and unlike the Mercenary they don’t want anything for themselves, but similarly to the Soldier they feel a sense of duty.
The Reluctant Hero is someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, and they aren’t doing it because it’s their job like the Soldier. They are a person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time, and they morally can’t bring themselves to turn away from those in need. If asked why they helped, they would respond “I couldn’t turn my back on it, and it was the right thing to do.” They don’t feel like it’s their duty, they just feel like they were the only one there at the time who could do it, so they did.
I think the one thing that is often interesting about the Reluctant Hero is that, if someone else was around who could successfully do the saving, the Reluctant Hero would let them, but often they are put in situations where either they have to try, or all is lost.
- The Anti-Hero –
The final type of hero isn’t quite a hero at all – the Anti-Hero. The Anti-Hero is not someone who is trying to help anyone, and they’re most often not a good person. There are slight varying definitions of this, but in my opinion, the Anti-Hero is a character who ultimately has their own larger goal, but they do kind, heroic things along the way in pursuit of their goal. I think this falls into a lot of gangster characters who do wonderful things for the “little people” but who aren’t really good characters at all, and whose larger goals are really something quite unhero-like.
Another version of the Anti-Hero is someone who does dark, violent things in order to achieve something good. This kind of character is like Batman at times (The Dark Knight is the obvious example). Batman kills and commits crimes in order to make Gotham a better place, going from loved hero to wanted criminal.
Either way, the main thing about the Anti-hero is that they don’t follow the same rules as the normal hero, and that they will often commit villain-like acts in the pursuit of their goal. These sorts of acts will stand in stark contrast with the heroic elements, and it will make the audience question whether the character is hero or villain.
I’m sure there are some more minor variations of heroes, but in general, I think most heroes in stories can be divided up into one of the five categories above. If you aren’t sure about which your character is, ask yourself what motivates them to be a hero? What motivates them to commit heroic acts? If you have that answer, you should be able to pinpoint what type of hero they are.
One question I hear asked a lot to writers is, “where do you find your stories?” This question is sort of silly to me because stories are everywhere around you if you look. Every item you come across in your day has a story for how it became what it is, and got where it is. If you ask enough questions, eventually you’ll find some interesting element that you can turn into a compelling story if you try. I could go on for a long time about ways to find a story, so instead I decide, in honor of Halloween, to narrow the focus this week and discuss where to find inspiration for horror stories in particular.
For me, I really think horror stories have to either start with the protagonist or the “monster.” By monster, I mean whatever villain is in your story, be it a literal monster, a ghost, a serial killer, a psychological monster, a location, etc. I say this because the core of most horror stories is the conflict between these two entities — the protagonist and the monster — and I think starting with one of them can be the easiest way to start a horror story. If you start with the monster, you can ask yourself who would it go after and find your protagonist. If you start with the protagonist, you can ask yourself what type of monster would they encounter and go from there. Immediately either one can give you your story, but where do you find the protagonist or the monster?
If you want to start your horror story by coming up with your protagonist and you have no ideas in mind, you can go several directions:
- Pick someone you know and turn them into a character by changing some of their traits to make them slightly different.
- Pick a stranger on the street and create a character from them based on what you can infer from their appearance and behavior.
- Pick a stereotype character and then do a free write or character sheet to turn them into something more and give them depth.
- Pick an occupation and then create a character that fills that job role.
There are a ton of other ways to come up with a character, but these are a few of my favorite simple ones. Once you have a character in mind you can find your monster by asking yourself where would this character go to find trouble? Does it find them, or do they seek it out by going somewhere they shouldn’t? Do they have a friend that takes them to a haunted forest? Do they live near a mental asylum where a killer can escape? Do they work in a hospital where people die every day and ghosts may linger? Do they go swimming or camping in a secluded area where monsters could lurk in the shadows?
Think about all the places your character may go on a daily or weekly basis and think about what kinds of monsters they could encounter there. If none of these places is suitable, then think about what kind of friends your character has, and what kind of trouble those characters could get the protagonist into. Do they have a reckless friend who likes going into abandoned buildings? A crazy friend who sees things? A friend who picks up shady drifters and brings them home? Once you have the monster your character would most likely meet, you can start creating the plot between the monster and the protagonist and find your story.
As I said earlier, when I use the term “monster” I don’t necessarily mean a literal monster, but rather I mean any type of antagonist your character will come up against in the story. Monsters can be anywhere, and if you’re prone to writing horror it’s a good idea to keep a list somewhere of various monster ideas whenever you come up with one. A few places that I generally find monster ideas include:
- Reading about urban legends and mythical creatures. Those cheap tabloid papers have some great ones of these, as do those random lists of legends, myths, and creatures that are all over the internet. Pick one and make it your own, give it a setting, and see where it takes you.
- Phobias. These are a great source for monster inspiration because once you pick a phobia you can use it to build your monster. Think of phobia that you like, or look up a list and pick one, and then ask yourself if your character has that fear what kind of monster would trigger it? Do they have a fear of being alone? Then how about you forget them in the middle of the ocean after a deep sea diving expedition (Open Water). Do they have a fear of the dark, well how about a monster that only appears in the darkness and can make the lights go out (Lights Out, Darkness Falls)? Whatever phobia you choose, ask yourself where or how your character can be forced to face it, and what kind of monster could cause them to. Sometimes it’s even the monster that has the fear (Lights Out) and it can be used as part of how the protagonist defeats them, so you can also try to create a monster from that angle as well.
- True unsolved mysteries or famous oddities. These are a great source for horror because they’re true, unexplained, and usually, have just the right amount of creepiness to them that they can be twisted even further for the perfect horror story.
Any of the options above can work for finding a monster to create your horror story around, but they aren’t the only way. At the heart, the monster comes from the twisting of something that is somewhat normal to something threatening. Think about it. Cujo was a dog, a ghost is just a (dead) person, water is just water, etc, but all can be turned and twisted to become a monster. So if you can’t find some kind of monster from the ideas above, then try taking something random and asking how could it be dangerous? How could it be scary?
Once you have the “monster,” then ask yourself what kind of character would they either go after or accidentally encounter? Is the monster in a lake at a teen summer camp? Are they in a house that a nice young family has just moved into? Are they in a school where kids just want to go to prom? Once you know who your monster’s victims are, and where the monster hunts, then you have your story.
A writing friend and I got in a heated discussion the other day as to whether clichés in writing can ever be a good thing. He is an adamant believer that clichés should be actively hunted down and eliminated from all dialogue, as well as most other areas of writing when possible. I, on the other hand, have a more lenient approach. I think clichés can be useful in specific circumstances, and sometimes they’re the best choice for the job. So when are clichés a good thing?
Sometimes if you can’t find a simple way to reword or rework a scene to avoid the cliché, then you can end up making the writing convoluted and awkward, which is worse than just using the cliché. A cliché can be invisible in the story and the audience may not even notice it, but awkward writing will interrupt the flow and stand out to an audience. It can also become obvious that you’re trying to avoid the cliché, and that can be distracting as well.
A really easy example is the phrase “that’s classified.” If you wanted to you could avoid it in a lot of ways, but there has to be a limit to how far you’ll go to avoid a cliché, and how much space you want to use to do so. If you try to avoid “that’s classified,” you could end up with something convoluted like, “I can’t tell you that because you are not qualified to access that information.” Just reading it makes me roll my eyes because it’s incredibly obvious I’m avoiding the cliché. In fact, it reads like a convoluted way of saying “that’s above your pay grade.” Which is another cliché.
The point is, avoiding the cliché in this case is turning out awkward, and it’s becoming obvious to the audience that it is what I’m doing. You don’t want your audience to stop and think about the writing when they’re enjoying the story – unless they stop to go “DAMN, that was good!” That is always acceptable! You want the audience involved, and in a situation like this it’s easier to throw in the cliché to get the message across and keep the story moving, rather than finding some roundabout way to avoid it.
Sometimes the decision for me to use the cliché comes down to one thing – simplicity. Sure, there are a lot of ways to word things that may let me avoid a cliché, but sometimes the cliché is the easiest, clearest way to get whatever message I want across to the audience. If I can use a cliché and it only takes 2 words instead of 20, then I better have some big motivation as to why those 20 words are needed. I’m a firm believer that every word has to count in a story, and as I said above, sometimes the cliché is just the simplest way to go. Will there be better ways to say things, probably, but does that mean you need to change your wording? No.
Cliches aren’t inherently bad. They can be overused, and they can be used at bad times, but sometimes they’re the best way to go for the sake of keeping the story moving forward. So always consider how complicated the route to avoid the cliché is. Ask yourself, if I avoid this cliché, will I slow the story down? Will it waste space on the page? Does the cliché add or take away anything from the scene? If the answers to these don’t give you a reason to take out the cliché, then I say go with the simplest method of keeping it in.
The biggest argument I think there is for keeping a cliché is that in some character cultures, clichés are ingrained in the system. By character cultures I mean communities like police officers, military personnel, doctors, politicians, etc. These kind of cultures that are part of large organizations have certain things that are ingrained in them.
For example, cliché language is often used by the higher ups in these organizations because clichés are something that a huge group of people will all understand in the same way. Clichés also become ingrained in these organizations because they relay on training being passed down, and the clichés carry through. For example, police officers and military personnel are more likely to use phrases that they have been trained to use. Military men use things like “need to know” because it’s an easy way for higher ups to dismiss lower level employees without actually giving them any information, and those lower level employees generally have to listen because they don’t outrank anyone.
In these sorts of settings, clichés can be used by the higher ups as a very easy way to create a separation between those of different ranks. Think of all the cliché phrases you can for military and even police personnel and think of their purpose: Need to know, that’s classified, that’s above your pay grade, etc. They all serve to protect information, and to put someone lower down in their place. In politics, there is a similar thing going on. The cliché phrases are more about delivering a message without delivering specifics. They say “I will bring change” or “I have the experience to do [blah]” and so on without every really specific what their plan is or how they are qualified.
Similarly, in medical fields clichés exist to keep information vague or to deliver a clear message without getting into specifics. In medical fields you sometimes don’t have time to lay out all the information because of the life and death situation, so abbreviated phrases are used to get a message across to everyone in the room quickly.
In general, these kids of systemized or structural cultures have clichés ingrained in them because they help create structure, they are universally understood, they deliver information and meaning without specifics as needed, and these cultures often have similar situations happen over and over again which can lead to certain sequences of events becoming cliché. The point is, you don’t need these characters to use clichés all the time, but having them in these instances is more acceptable because the clichés are part of the culture and the training almost everyone goes through in these professions, so they are almost expected by an audience.
When to Cut the Cliché?
Now clearly clichés should be cut whenever you can cut them in a way that doesn’t involve the things I’ve mentioned above, but sometimes it can be hard to decide. If there is an easy way to avoid the cliché, then always use it. If the cliché makes the scene cheesy or eye-roll worthy, then definitely cut it. If your entire plot hinges on a cliché, again, think about changing it. The important thing is that the clichés you do use don’t interrupt the flow or come off as lazy. Use them because they’re the best tool for the job (cliché!), and use them because they serve the story. Don’t use them because you’re too lazy to think of something else.
If you aren’t sure, then get a second opinion and see if your beta reader finds it distracting. Ultimately, like anything else in writing it all depends on the specific situation. Clichés exist for a reason, just use them wisely!