This is the third part of a five-part series inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” in which one paragraph stood out for me as the beginnings of a horror/weird fantasy manifesto:
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.
If you haven’t read part one yet, here’s the link. This week we’ll dig deeper into the third point:
(c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—
We started with the “one weird thing”—the horror element intruding on our world—then talked about what it’s actually there to do—what purpose it serves for that story—and now we’ll need to put some meat on this weird thing’s bones and start to define what it does that’s so “weird,” that upsets the apple cart of whatever world it appears in.
I’ll say again, up front, that we are not just talking about monsters here. This goes for anything that intrudes on the normal course of any world. So we could be talking about a monster, sure, in a horror story; or aliens in a science fiction story; or some kind of magical artifact in a fantasy story; and all the various combinations imaginable. Whatever this one weird thing is, surely it actually does something that unbalances things, creating conflict, peril, suspense, etc.
Of course, it could be that this one weird thing actually does nothing at all. We could take a cue from Dashiell Hammet’s brilliant The Maltese Falcon on that score. The Maltese Falcon itself is a thing of value, an art object, which we’re led to believe is of value because various characters are willing to kill to possess it. But it doesn’t actually do anything in its own right, and (spoiler alert) ends up to be worthless after all. Like the Maltese Falcon, your one weird thing may end up just sitting there, conjuring up something in the imaginations and ignorance of the characters around it that makes it valuable or dangerous—or both.
Even then, you’ll want to give it some sense of what they think it actually does, even if a final reveal dismisses it entirely.
I’ll start with my own advice. In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I get into rules setting and plausibility:
As with every aspect of worldbuilding, when you are devising a magic system, consistency is king. For example, let’s say you write a scene in which your hero, a wizard, conjures a ball of purple fire that engulfs an entire village, but a hundred pages later, he watches in impotent horror as a marauding gang of bandits storms down a hill. “Now wait a minute,” alert readers will say. “Why doesn’t he just conjure up that purple fire and immolate the evil bandits?” If he does conjure up that fire, it had better be purple again or readers will need to understand why it isn’t purple—is it a different sort of magical fire? If there’s no fire, then you’ll need to make clear why he’s unable to conjure it up in this instance when he could before.
The same problem would occur if these two scenes were reversed: if the wizard could do something on page 200 that he couldn’t do on page 20. If he’s gained an ability to generate purple fire, you must show us how he learned to do this in the intervening 180 pages.
Follow your own rules! Right?
But also keep in mind that those rules can be whatever you damn well please. This one weird thing can be a dragon the size of the planet Jupiter or a healing potion—you decide what your story needs (see Part 2!) but once you show it doing any one thing, that’s something it does unless there’s a reason for it to change that’s made more or less clear in the story itself. And note my use of the word show in that last sentence. Don’t info dump. Do your level best never to write a paragraph of explanation . . . of anything, ever, actually. Describe the thing, whatever it is, in action.
Then, in Writing Monsters, at least four whole chapters on the subject of what a monster can actually do—and just as important, what it can’t do. Consider the weird thing’s strengths and both limitations (the extent of its powers—it’s strong, say, but not infinitely strong) and weaknesses:
Remember, a monster’s limitations are the furthest extents of its powers, but a weakness is something that can allow your characters to hurt or kill it. For example, your vampires might have all the abilities of a nocturnal creature as well as superhuman strength and hypnosis, but it must sleep during the day and it can’t enter your home without an invitation. These are limitations that your characters can exploit. You can physically hurt or even kill your vampire by playing against its weaknesses. By now we all have a pretty good idea of a vampire’s weaknesses:
A wooden stake through the heart
Setting it on fire
Sunlight (usually . . . oddly enough, Bram Stoker’s famed vampire could operate during the day from time to time, although his powers were greatly weakened)
It’s interesting to note that over the years authors have taken some of these weaknesses away and have come up with new ones, or as Lynn Abbey advises: “If the monster in question is of a known species or archetypical creature, and its weaknesses are likewise apparent, then the writer’s job is to tweak the tropes—is this particular vampire really sensitive to light? To all light, or just sunlight?”
In Writing Monsters, I provided a Monster Creation Form that I’m happy to share here. It’s not meant to be some kind of perfect template for all monsters, but it can provide a few cues—reminders to consider things like “How smart is it?” and “What hurts it?” With just the slightest revision on your part, if any, it can equally serve to delineate the powers of any other form of the “one weird thing”: artifacts, spells, transformed humans, aliens, other magical or high-tech effects, and so on.
Also in Writing Monsters I grabbed a few examples from role-playing games. Though I’ll repeat here the fact that no, you absolutely do not have to first create the RPG then write the novel or short story—that you never have to create a proper game or use anything like game mechanics—the RPG can inspire the way you keep your notes. Consider the following:
Item: ROSE COLORED SPECTACLES OF DELUSION AND UN-TRUE SIGHT Value: -?- Looks: Small granny glasses with rose colored lenses. Effects: The wearer sees bad things as good, and good things as bad. He also never knows when he’s hurt. Area Effected: the wearer (he likes the glasses so much he won’t remove them.)
This a magic item from The Arduin Grimoire, Vol. III: The Runes of Doom by David Hargrave (1978).
Not a lot of detail here, and no real game mechanics, either. It isn’t a particularly original idea, playing on the old saying about people “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses,” but honestly? This is enough to start a story. Offering this as a writing prompt I bet I could easily populate a short story anthology with a dozen original takes on the concept.
These could show up in the real world in just about any historical time period including the near or far future. As was true in the original RPG, it can be part of a created fantasy world. This one weird thing could then drive a science fiction, fantasy, or horror story that could also pick up elements of mystery (the detective can’t see the truth of who the killer is with these glasses on) or romance (until she gets rid of these things she’ll keep falling for the wrong guy).
This might actually be all the notes you need. Mr. Hargrave apparently assumed it was all his players needed to know to run with it. Or it could be just a starting point. You may find that you want to add a few limitations—the glasses don’t function in the dark, they’re particularly fragile—or strengths/other powers—they actually adhere to the wearer’s head or somehow cause the people he looks at to actually begin to transform into their own opposites.
Again, the rules for these weird glasses are limited only by your imagination, and please let that imagination run wild and range free, but don’t let it get entirely away from you. Make this weird thing—any artifact, monster, etc.—plausible by carefully delineating what it can and can’t do. Then follow your own rules to build your story’s unique internal logic. However weird it is, if it follows its own rules, your readers will follow you anywhere—there’s no such thing as “too weird.”
Your characters might disagree with that, of course, and we’ll get into that in Part 4: What Makes it Scary.