Lately I’ve been quoting H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” for added wisdom about atmosphere and inspiration, and though this direct little essay contains some real wisdom, it’s also lacking a bit in depth. One paragraph stands out in terms of a sort of horror/weird fantasy manifesto—not a formula, but let’s call it a list of standard ingredients:
Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.
And Lovecraft pretty much left it at that, with just a bit more on point (e) in the next paragraph, but I’d like to take these one at a time for a series of posts beginning with:
(a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—
condition, entity, etc.
In my online Horror Intensive and in other places, I’ve called this idea “the one weird thing.” It assumes that we’re writing a horror story in particular, that this is the real world (in any time period) and into that familiar setting is added “some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.”—a vampire, zombies, a ghost, or some other sort of monster or supernatural entity. Robert Gray, in “13 Tips for Writing Horror Fiction,” called this a “hook”:
Your hook is the Big Concept you’re trying to sell; that razor-sharp, serrated edge that cleaves its way through everything else in the story. The hook is easy enough to create. Say the words what if… and then fill in the blank. What if… an impenetrable dome came down over a small town (Under the Dome by Stephen King)? What if… a family of inbred maniacs terrorized a group of tourists in the woods (Off Season by Jack Ketchum)?
Though a horror story will start with the real world and introduce the weird with the intent to scare you, fantasy (urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy, etc.) can do exactly the same thing just that the “abnormality” isn’t necessarily meant to scare you, at least not just to scare you. And this actually carries into so-called “second world” fantasy as well: It’s your invented medieval world in which we meet recognizable people who then encounter something scary, threatening, or beneficial: a dragon, faeries, or any of the same creatures of the horror genre (zombies, vampires, and so on). Likewise, what was the movie Alien but a science fiction story in which the crew of a starship happens upon “some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.”?
All that’s meant to say: Don’t write horror? Okay—these lessons still apply to all flavors of fantasy and science fiction.
That leads us, though, to the first question: What is this “basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.” meant to do? Is it meant to be scary (we’re just trying not be eaten alive) or is it meant to be aspirational (we’re all trying to find the source of magic or some transformative technology, etc.)?
Pretty much the entire second part of my book Writing Monsters is concerned with this one point of Mr. Lovecraft’s. Though that book is, obviously, specific to the literal definition of a “monster,” some of that advice, at least, can easily be extended to any variation of “the one weird thing.” Think of this as anything that intrudes on the normal lives of your characters.
Generally speaking, when some strange new thing is added to the experience of anyone—or any group of people—its first effect is disruptive. We like to think we’re open to new ideas but there’s still a bit of the caveman—even the wild animal—in us to be at least suspicious, if not afraid, of something new.
Author Rachel Aukes answered SF Signal’s question: Horrified by Horror—The Books, Films and Shows That Messed Us Up with a story that’s about not a scary monster but a scary idea:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was a novel that has stuck with me for years. A dystopian story, it brings to vivid life a tyrannical world where there’s a huge gap in human rights between the highly privileged and everyone else. It scares me even today because I see how easily we can lose our basic human rights if we do not remain diligent.
Of course that new thing, that “basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.” can be an idea. New ideas are unsettling at first and might very quickly change to exciting or infuriating or irritating, but the first reaction tends to be at least a little negative. We’ll get into more of that—how those negative reactions manifest—later in this series of posts, but for now what I’m trying to do is open up your definition of “the weird” to include just about anything and everything, or as Lovecraft put it: “etc.”
And whether you call it “one weird thing” or a “hook” or a “monster,” I can’t stress enough the vital importance of robust thinking into the nature of this “abnormality” on just about any genre story.
Gary L. Pullman put together a fascinating list of specific horror authors’ “formulae” that he boiled down to:
General Horror Formula
1. A series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated incidents occurs.
2. The protagonist (and, sometimes, his or her friends or associates) discover the cause of the incidents (often, it is a monster).
3. Using their newfound knowledge, they end the bizarre incidents (perhaps by killing the monster).
I think this fits nicely with the idea of the one weird thing, which is the cause of his first point, the subject of the second, and the problem to be solved in the third.
Hopefully by now you’re getting how important this one weird thing is to any story. In the next part we’ll start constructing that thing, defining what it can and can’t do, and more.