Choosing to be isolated from others is a trait we don’t routinely recognize as healthy. Worse, we often see it as either the result of a dangerous psychological imbalance or the cause of a dangerous psychological imbalance. This is true in reality as much as in fiction.

In “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II” Mike Dash wrote for

The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”

It’s not unusual to see isolation as a theme popping up in “weird” fiction, mostly horror, though I’ve found two good examples of science fiction authors isolating their characters from the outside world, and for very different reasons. The most recent is Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time in which characters are essentially imprisoned, or more or less exiled, to the farthest reaches of space to watch for an enemy no one seems to believe is ever coming. This plays into a very old military tradition in which younger or “problem” soldiers are “reassigned” to the worst duty possible—the most isolated places:

The ansible rings true and through it all. The planet called Citadel is the farthest colony of man from Earth. The station called Citadel placed herself above the only desert rock they had in range with enough magnetic fields to sustain a planetary colony against the stellar winds. They gathered ice comets and liquid moons and hurled them upon the surface to inject life into the ground before the damaged battleship’s supply ran out, but it is not enough to sustain a complex economy like Earth’s. It is described as a desert in its lushest places, a wind-blasted moonscape where man has not begun to change the ground. Terraforming is always slow, and as distant as they are relative to the center of cosmic gravity, the speed of terraforming seems even slower to the solar system. Every year, Earth is three weeks faster than us on the Citadel. It is Sisyphean to consider a place like this, and it is Sisyphean to sit here in my little cell and write about what is obvious to everyone: This is a terrible posting at the edge of the human space and time, and everyone here knows it, even you.

But not everyone is necessarily sent to the hinterlands as punishment. Some people choose to go there, like the Antarctic researchers of the science fiction classic “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which was originally published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938 under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, and has since been made into at least three movies called The Thing. See how Campbell casts the environment as a second, even worse monster:

Drift—a drift-wind was sweeping by overhead. Right now the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp. If a man stepped out of the tunnels that connected each of the camp buildings beneath the surface, he’d be lost in ten paces. Out there, the slim, black finger of the radio mast lifted 300 feet into the air, and at its peak was the clear night sky. A sky of thin, whining wind rushing steadily from beyond to another beyond under the licking, curling mantle of the aurora. And off north, the horizon flamed with queer, angry colors of the midnight twilight. That was spring 300 feet above Antarctica.

At the surface—it was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing. Cold—and white mist of endless, everlasting drift, the fine, fine particles of licking snow that obscured all things.

Kinner, the little, scar-faced cook, winced. Five days ago he had stepped out to the surface to reach a cache of frozen beef. He had reached it, started back—and the drift-wind leapt out of the south. Cold, white death that streamed across the ground blinded him in twenty seconds. He stumbled on wildly in circles. It was half an hour before rope-guided men from below found him in the impenetrable murk.

It was easy for man—or ‘thing’—to get lost in ten paces.

This is where we really see the story utility of characters in isolation. If, say, an alien monster attacks and the first thing everybody does is dial 911, the police show up, then the National Guard, then the Army . . . well, that’s a very different story. And though there have been stories that have gone that route, what things like the various versions of Godzilla end up lacking is a strong protagonist. Once the Army comes in, it’s tough to focus all efforts on one person, and show how a single hero can take responsibility for solving this monster problem, like McReady does in “Who Goes There?” or Ripley does in Alien—both much more satisfying stories, for my money anyway.

Sometimes, as we hit on last week looking at Lovecraft’s “Five Definite Elements” of a weird tale, it’s about isolating a group of people so we can bring out not just the heroic in the hero, but the villainous in the villain.

I adore this chilling little interchange from the horror classic The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.

“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.”

“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.

“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”

“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself.” She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry; I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.

“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

The Haunting of Hill House isolates a small group of characters in a haunted house and though none of them emerge as a “villain,” per se, the story is about what each of them brings to that haunting—adding their own metaphorical “ghosts” to the disembodied population of Hill House.

We all know that the confidence that someone will come to help gives people at least a bit of extra courage. In fact, our whole society pretty much depends on that. We cluster together as tribes, establish cities, so we have neighbors we can call out to for help. When that fails us we tend to go a little nuts. You’ve probably heard of the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman murdered on a Queens, New York street while her neighbors supposedly listened and even watched, but never tried to help or even call the police. Turns out that lack of response was more urban legend than urban isolation (I’ll refer you to the documentary The Witness for the real story), but that sense of the horror of isolation remains.

Remember the tag line: In space, no one can hear you scream?

Some stories go to the final step, isolating one single character. In Harlan Ellison’s 1956 short story “Life Hutch,” a lone astronaut is trapped in a shelter on a remote asteroid—with a malfunctioning robot that will kill him if he moves. It’s a personal favorite of mine, as is Stephen King’s story “Survivor Type” from the collection Skeleton Crew (one of the textbooks for my online Horror Intensive), which begins with:

January 26

Two days since the storm washed me up. I paced the island off just this morning. Some island! It is 190 paces wide at its thickest point, and 267 paces long from tip to tip.

So far as I can tell, there is nothing on it to eat.

From there the story is as much a fictional memoir as it is a particularly disturbing work of “body horror.” What Dr. Richard Pine finally resolves to do to feed himself makes for King’s most disturbing story ever, and utterly and completely relies on isolation.

Humans are pack animals. We need each other, even if we sometimes turn on each other, so when you want to scare your readers, put them in a tight space alone or with just a few other people. And then, maybe, The Hills Have Eyes-fashion, throw at them villains who are really isolated, like that poor Russian family.

Not that they were villains at all, but . . . victims?

From that Smithsonian article: “What amazed him most of all,” Peskov recorded, “was a transparent cellophane package. ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!’ ”


—Philip Athans


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This is the second 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 second point:

(b) the general effects or bearings of the horror

Some of this, written in Lovecraft’s often inimical style, can be a bit difficult to sort out. At first I thought this was meant to answer the question: What does this thing actually do? But then that also seems to be what he’s getting at with the final element: “(e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.” Admitting that I might just be forcing Lovecraft’s words into my own sense of how to write fantasy and horror, I’ll offer that what he’s getting at here is less what does the thing do—what physical or magical abilities does the monster or artifact or etc. possess—but what does it represent? In other words, not so much what “general effects” does it have on a character’s body—clawing, biting, or setting him on fire—but what “general effects” it has on the story itself, and the unique world (or version of the real world) in which it appears.

Writing Monsters Cover

In my book Writing Monsters, I devoted a whole section, seven chapters in all, to asking Why They’re Here. In the book I concentrated on six different things a monster can bring to a story, what they represent:

  • Monsters as Metaphor
  • Monsters as Obstacles
  • Monsters as Agents
  • Monsters as Sources of Pity
  • Monsters as Sources of Magic or Technology
  • Bringing Out the Good and Evil in People

I’m not going to try to rewrite the whole book here, but rather let’s think about this separate from the specific idea of creating a monster, or introducing into the world some living (or undead) creature. After all, not all of Lovecraft’s own stories were, necessarily, monster tales, and I don’t think he’s saying in this essay that “the horror” has to be defined in that way.

So if we replace that list of Monsters as . . . with some other “horror,” what sort of chapter titles do we get?

  • Black Magic as Metaphor
  • Aberrant Behavior as Obstacles
  • Nightmares as Agents
  • Artifacts as Sources of Pity
  • Fear of the Unknown as a Source of Magic or Technology

Feel free to use that list as writing prompts, by the way. But anyway, the one common factor actually ends up being:

Bringing Out the Good and Evil in People

I’ve belabored the point that no shortage of monster stories put human characters in a position of having to make certain judgment calls. In zombie stories from Night of the Living Dead onward the zombies themselves are the disruptive thing—the one weird thing that shifts the reality of the characters trying to survive the effects of this one weird thing not just on the characters physically, but the larger-scale damage the zombies do to society, government, law . . . all of our set of expectations, our normal world.

Some characters find their inner heroes, others allow fear and desperation, or other issues, to lead them to do the wrong thing. Does the zombie apocalypse turn you into a violent, power-mad biker like, let’s just say it out loud, almost everyone in The Walking Dead, or a heroic if obsessed and psychologically damaged scientist desperately in search of a cure like Will Smith’s interpretation of Robert Neville in the 2007 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend?

Okay, I’ve been officially “zombied out” for a while now, but let’s stick with that example, since the Romeroesque zombie horde can so easily be replaced with the rogue AI genocide, the alien invasion, the demon plague, the runaway technology, rapid climate change—all sorts of weirdness.

Principally, in every zombie story I’ve ever read or seen—and I’ve seen a lot—that one thread of bringing out the good or evil in people holds true. There are human villains and human heroes in the George Romero originals, in The Walking Dead, in Resident Evil, in World War Z, and so on. In fact, whatever the one weird thing is, it will tend to have that effect.

This seems to hold true across the board.

If the one weird thing is coveted by more than one person, sides are drawn, conflict ensues, and in order to get it one might choose methods we find distasteful and become the villain while the other adopts methods we find inspirational to take on the role of hero. Case in point: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Some stories even make villains of the people who refuse to believe in the one weird thing based on villainous qualities like greed—the mayor in Jaws, for instance, while the reluctant hydrophobe Chief Brody rises to the occasion by going out to kill the shark.

Honestly, I could sit here all day and list one example after another, but I think we can all agree that what the one weird thing represents is change, and change can be either the most exciting or the most terrifying thing. Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Your one weird thing changes the world for the characters that encounter it. That’s actually what it’s there for—to change the world in a way that allows you to say what you want to say about the human condition. And I know that you have something to say about the human condition because every work of fiction is the product of an author who, overtly or covertly, even consciously or unconsciously, has something to say about the human condition. If you’re the creators of The Walking Dead that might come down to some version of “the Biker Shall Inherit the Earth.” I Am Legend, at least to me, says “only science can fix science’s mistakes.” And both convey those messages by concentrating on one weird thing activating change in society to bring out the good or evil in people.

And when I said “society” there, you’ll see in just a quick overview of weird fiction that a society can come in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s introducing dragons to the world of Game of Thrones or zombies to the real world, an acid-blooded super-predator to a small starship or a shape-changing alien to a remote arctic research station. Your society might be just a handful of characters or the whole world—even the whole universe.

So then, “the general effects or bearings of the horror” is to bring out the good or evil in people by affecting some radical change in their society, every single time.

I get supremely nervous making sweeping statements like that.

But am I right?


—Philip Athans

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…and not the Pauly Shore movie.

I wish!

I’m pretty sure this is officially the latest I’ve ever posted our regular Tuesday get-together, but I spent a much longer day than I’d bargained for serving on a jury.

I know, maybe I should have some “canned” posts ready for days like this, but I don’t. I prefer to live in the uncertain!

But seriously, maybe we can get a little learnin’ out of this experience.

I’ve been working hard since the beginning of 2017–and before that, truth be told, to re-prioritize my own writing, with a goal of writing at least 1000 words every day. I haven’t been perfect on that score, but I’ve definitely been writing more.

But in the final analysis, this is a self-imposed deadline. I take it seriously, but at the same time I also live in the world. A world that includes, every once in a while, jury duty. Your world may well include that, too. Or a medical emergency, or some kind of work something, or a vacation. Something can intrude on your writing goals–and your blogging goals–and blow up your day.

And now I’ve found out after having left this morning at 6:20 am to drop my wife off at work and get to the courthouse at 8:15 am then leaving the courthouse after 5:00 pm, picking her up almost an hour and a half later, and not getting home until just before 7:00 pm that I have to go back again tomorrow.

And maybe Thursday.

So yeah, jury duty blew up my work day, and now threatens to blow up my work week.

But I will live to fight another day, people, and so will you if you need to take a day off to handle other parts of your life, positive or negative.

Either way, next week we’ll get back to Lovecraft’s advice for horror (and fantasy) authors.

Unless O.J. Simpson has been up to no good in Bellevue, Washington.

Heaven forbid.

–Philip Athans

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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.)?

Buy It Now!

Buy It Now!

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.


—Philip Athans

Continues in Part 2: Why It’s Here

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Lately I’ve been reading some stories that suffer from an excess of what I refer to as procedural description. This is description that moves characters from place to place or otherwise handles bits of logistics, organization, or worldbuilding and that isn’t, in and of itself, particularly interesting to read. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and like most traps in the often difficult pursuit of writing fiction, can seem an almost impossible trap from which to escape. You can’t think your way out of it—you have to feel your way out.

Now, I readily admit that sometimes you actually do have to move characters around:

Bronwyn crossed the empty throne room, pulled the tapestry aside to reveal the hidden doorway, stepped through it, then walked down the staircase to the deepest dungeon where she opened the door to the treasure vault.

Before something interesting can happen to Bronwyn in the treasure vault you have to get her there, right?

Okay, sure.

Your readers need to know how she got there—what path she took—right?

Not necessarily.

Everyone reading this is keeping a D&D-style graph paper map of the castle, right?

Of course not.

The first question I ask, as an editor, when I run across some bit of procedural description like that is “Why do we care how she got there?” And by “we” I mean your readers. And this is where you have to get brutally honest with yourself. If your answer to that question is “Yes,” be prepared to back that up with more—lots more—than just “because I mapped it out on graph paper myself and want that to have been a useful exercise.”

As I’ve advised before, write as fast as you can, get into that flow state and get words down on paper. But once you start reading through after that first rough draft, constantly ask yourself: “What do my readers need to know right now to move the story forward?” Or, as A.J. Humpage wrote in “Description and Why It’s Important”:

Description isn’t about using pretty words and pages of complicated sentence structures to make a story, it’s about understanding the reason why you use it and when you use it that matters. It’s about conveying important information to the reader in strategic places.

My actual complaint here isn’t whether or not you’ve mapped it out. I’ve made more than my share of “dungeon maps” myself to make sure I’m choreographing things right. The real complaint isn’t that Bronwyn moves through this place, it’s that she moves through with no  emotional connection to either the space she’s passing through or the place she’s trying to get to. That’s what you want to focus on once you’ve determined that that bit of “procedure” is necessary to move your story forward. As Ann Swinfen described in “The Role of Description in Fiction,” it very often is necessary and does move your story forward:

I want to create the physical reality of the world in which my books take place. It is very solid and real to me, and I want to share that—the taste of an eel stew in seventeenth century Fenland, the sweet scent of a hay harvest or the choking fumes of parchment curing, the feeling of bitter cold in a Russian winter, the sound of the night offices sung in an abbey church, the shimmer of torches reflected in the dark, fast-flowing waters of the Thames.

So description will always remain an essential part of my fictional worlds. As they exist for me, so I want them to exist for my readers.

I called procedural description a trap before, so how to escape from that trap?

Remind yourself that as your character moves through that space, or picks up a sword, or engages the hyperdrive, that we aren’t machines. We may not love everything we’re doing, we may not burst into tears of either joy or grief every time we turn the key in the ignition or flip on a light switch, but referring you back to a post on what to include in your story and what to leave out, if it’s important that that character engages the hyperdrive at that moment, surely he or she has some feeling about it.

If Bronwyn crosses the empty throne room, that triggers what emotion or memory in her? Or what does that show us about that space that moves the story forward? If the king and his entire family were murdered in the previous chapter then the silent, empty throne room shows that absence, especially if we’ve previously seen the room full of noise and life when the royal family was in attendance. Now that absence wears on Bronwyn, and wears on your readers just the same.

In her “Pixar’s Rules,” storyboard artist Emma Coats put it this way: “If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.”

Author Joe M. McDermott moves his POV character onto a light years-distant space station—moves his character from here to there—in his novel The Fortress at the End of Time in an exceptional example of procedural description brought vividly to life by emotional intelligence:

The glass came up and I was born here, on the Citadel.

The moment I had seen gas, I was already here, and the images in my retinas of the place I had been is proof to me that it was real. Once upon a time, there was a place called Earth, and a young cadet named Ronaldo Aldo who had lived at sea with his mother and father, until he went to War College in the ancient Mexican city, and he stepped into a glass tube that quantum cloned him, creating me.

I was born, then, and I was reborn with all the sins still in my heart, my failure with Shui Mien, with my terrible pride.

This is all about what it feels like to move into that place, dragging everything personal about this “young cadet” along for the ride. This isn’t just a change in place but a change in reality for the character and the reader alike. In this excerpt there are precious few words spent on the workings of his unique version of the “ansible” compared to Aldo’s emotional journey through it.

I’ve beaten the “appeal to the five senses” drum over and over here and in my various courses and tutorials, so in this case I’ll leave it to author Robert J. Sawyer to reinforce, from “On Writing: Description”:

The trick is to appeal both to the emotions and to the senses: tell us what people are feeling, what they’re thinking, and, when appropriate, what they’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.

You have much more control over the reader’s experience than a movie director does. A director can’t be sure what part of the frame any given viewer might be looking at, but when you write “there was permanent dirt under his fingernails, the legacy of decades of archeological fieldwork,” you know exactly what the reader is contemplating.

In some cases, you may find that, unlike the example from The Fortress at the End of Time, you end up spending more words on procedure than on emotional connection, but as you can see in this extended example from the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard frames all of this movement in and description of the setting through Conan’s direct experience—and Conan is as “direct” a character as has ever been written, so it’s not just how “touchy feely” can you get, but how character appropriate it is.

And more than looking the part, he felt the part; the awakening of old memories, the resurge of the wild, mad, glorious days of old before his feet were set on the imperial path when he was a wandering mercenary, roistering, brawling, guzzling, adventuring, with no thought for the morrow, and no desire save sparkling ale, red lips, and a keen sword to swing on all the battlefields of the world.

Unconsciously he reverted to the old ways; a new swagger became evident in his bearing, in the way he sat his horse; half-forgotten oaths rose naturally to his lips, and as he rode he hummed old songs that he had roared in chorus with his reckless companions in many a tavern and on many a dusty road or bloody field.

It was an unquiet land through which he rode. The companies of cavalry which usually patrolled the river, alert for raids out of Poitain, were nowhere in evidence. Internal strife had left the borders unguarded: The long white road stretched bare from horizon to horizon. No laden camel trains or rumbling wagons or lowing herds moved along it now; only occasional groups of horsemen in leather and steel, hawk-faced, hard-eyed men, who kept together and rode warily. These swept Conan with their searching gaze but rode on, for the solitary rider’s harness promised no plunder, but only hard strokes.


Villages lay in ashes and deserted, the fields and meadows idle. Only the boldest would ride the roads these days, and the native population had been decimated in the civil wars, and by raids from across the river. In more peaceful times the road was thronged with merchants riding to Messantia in Argos, or back. But now these found it wiser to follow the road that led east through Poitain, and then turned south down across Argos. It was longer, but safer. Only an extremely reckless man would risk his life and goods on this road through Zingara.

The southern horizon was fringed with flame by night, and in the day straggling pillars of smoke drifted upward; in the cities and plains to the south men were dying, thrones were toppling and castles going up in flames. Conan felt the old tug of the professional fighting-man, to turn his horse and plunge into the fighting, the pillaging and the looting as in the days of old. Why should he toil to regain the rule of a people which had already forgotten him? Why chase a will-o’-the- wisp, why pursue a crown that was lost forever? Why should he not seek forgetfulness, lose himself in the red tides of war and rapine that had engulfed him so often before? Could he not, indeed, carve out another kingdom for himself? The world was entering an age of iron, an age of war and imperialistic ambition; some strong man might well rise above the ruins of nations as a supreme conqueror. Why should it not be himself? So his familiar devil whispered in his ear, and the phantoms of his lawless and bloody past crowded upon him. But he did not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a dream that never was.

This is all about that essential difference between telling and showing. Procedural description tells your readers what someone, or worse, something, is doing. What we—your readers—want is for you to show us what it feels like to be in that place and time, doing what your POV character—the person we’ve become in order to experience this story—is experiencing in the moment. I’ve called this “emotional distance,” and will keep calling it that. Always work to decrease the emotional distance between your POV character and your readers, with the ultimate goal of making them one and the same.


—Philip Athans


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The word “trope” actually describes a figurative or metaphorical turn of phrase that swaps in a new meaning in place of the literal meaning of a word or phrase. You can get a clearer sense of the original meaning of the word at Literary Devices. But the word “trope” has taken on a new meaning, and that is as a synonym for cliché, describing a sort of standard plot device that can be easily identified in various works of fiction. The word “trope,” especially as it’s propagated across the internet’s various crowd sourced “review” sites, has taken on an entirely negative connotation so I understand that when I ask you the question, “What are your ‘tropes’?” like me, you might put your guard up.

But hey, we’re all friends here, so let’s set aside the negative connotations, and the actual definition of the word, and be honest with ourselves in looking at not the clichés we keep going back to in our writing, but in the common themes that track through our work.

In the two-part PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-ending Battle, comic legend Joe Simon said in an interview segment: “If it’s a good idea and it’s funny or thrilling or whatever it is, it’s okay to do it at least eight times.”

I had to grab a piece of paper and write that down, rewinding a few times to make sure I got it right. There was something about not just the words he said but the playful way he said them that made me realize he was right.

Breaking that down, I don’t believe he meant that he would literally cut and paste whole sections of text. He didn’t mean repeating exactly the same words, but that there were certain common ideas that work more than once, that work for you more than once. I won’t try to argue his specific figure. Eight times? If you say so, Joe, but who’s counting?

Not me.

In the article “How Jack Reacher Was Built” by John Lanchester, the normally critically stodgy The New Yorker took a moment to almost honestly examine one of American publishing’s great examples of new pulp in Lee Child’s mega-best selling series.

There are recurring tropes and themes. The novels roam across America, with a notable affection for places in the middle, for big, blank landscapes, for small towns where no one apart from Reacher ever wants to stop. He visits rural Nebraska, rural South Dakota in winter, back-country Texas in summer. He likes communities that, to outsiders, seem nowhere in particular. Child is a poet of diners and motels, venues that capture an itinerant’s view of America. He dramatizes the lives you glimpse through a bus window, the glance into warm buildings from the cold outdoors.

Let’s try to get past the New York elitism behind the second through fourth sentences there and why people “in the middle” might be ill-inclined toward the perceived “East Coast Elite.”

Deep breaths.

Moving on . . . There’s that word, right up top again: tropes. But the substance of the paragraph really boils down to the idea that Lee Child has found a way to tell a Jack Reacher story in particular, and a hardboiled crime thriller in general, in a certain way that works for him, and clearly works for his readers as well. Though some corners of the internet would have us believe this is a bad thing, not this corner.

What we’re seeing in this description of the Reacher books isn’t a formula. We don’t see that by page 43 thus and such will have happened, then the next killing takes place no more than seven pages later . . . that kind of thing that I think some snobby readers believe we actually do.

Okay, I’ve heard that such a thing existed in the offices of Harlequin Romance, at least years ago, but that’s most likely an urban legend—a trope of the anti-tropists, if you will. Even the so-called “formula” of Lester Dent’s that I use in my Pulp Fiction Workshop isn’t nearly that prescriptive.

What we see in that description of Lee Child’s “tropes” instead is that “He likes communities that, to outsiders, seem nowhere in particular.” That basic concept, that thing Lee Child has gone back to more than eight times now, is hardly a formula but something, I assume, that interests Lee Child. He’s interested in exploring those off-the-map locales. And the isolation works for his brand of storytelling, in which Jack Reacher has to take primary responsibility for how things wrap up. The ready availability of police, the FBI, and nosy neighbors will just get in the way of the action.

I have a recurring “trope” of my own, which you might have detected, and that’s “mother as villain,” which is at the very heart of the entire War of the Spider Queen series, and shows up in the Watercourse Trilogy as well. What would Freud say? I don’t care. This is how I’m working through shit. And maybe somewhere in Lee Child’s past was some kind of remote locale trauma—or the opposite, that he loves those places and feels comforted going back there.

Looking at a lot of Stephen King again for my Horror Intensive it’s easy to see King’s common threads: children are scary, suburbia is scary, suburban children are really scary, laid under the umbrella of “Maine writer in danger.” And you know what? I love Stephen King and I’m okay with all that. John Grisham is a lawyer who writes “lawyer in danger” novels. These are their tropes, mine might be a little weirder.

So what are yours?

Whatever they are, don’t be afraid of them. Remember, Joe Simon said, “if it’s funny or thrilling or whatever it is, it’s okay to do it at least eight times,” and he created Captain frickin’ America. If I only count Annihilation and not the other five Spider Queen books, “mother as villain” will show up at least four more times from me.

Thankfully, my mother never reads my books.


—Philip Athans


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Harlan Ellison, one of my absolute writing idols, was kind enough to let me borrow a quote from him for The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, an oft-repeated bit of snark in answer to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” His flippant answer is, to my mind, as good as any answer to a largely if not completely unanswerable question. On this very this blog, four years ago, I more or less doubled down on that, intentionally belittling your “great idea” in an effort to get you to actually sit down and do something about it.

The fact is, ideas for books or stories are easy to come by. I’ve thrown a few around more or less willy nilly here, like my still unwritten zombie love story or 2015’s failed NaNoWriMo attempt.

I can’t promise to tell you where ideas come from but in all honesty, I hate leaving questions entirely unanswered. I would feel as though I’m failing in my mission as an editor to just dismiss it with more snark.

So let’s try, together, to sort this out, with help from a few unwitting accomplices like H.P. Lovecraft who, in his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” provided a little insight into his idea wellspring:


Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.

I think this matches up well with his thoughts on the importance of atmosphere we looked at a couple weeks ago. Anyone familiar at all with Lovecraft’s work is left reeling at the sort of dreams this poor guy had to suffer through. But as it happens, I had a long, vivid nightmare a few nights ago myself. It seemed as if I was in some version of Cloverfield or Godzilla. Some kind of giant monster or giant robot was stomping through this quaint little seaside resort town—no place I’ve ever actually been. I could feel the tremors of its footsteps and the adrenaline-rich mix of fear and excitement as I tried to find a place where I could both hide and still be able to see this thing. I can still feel that mix of terror and curiosity.

Should I just write that?

I suppose I could.

I’m not sure I’ve ever written a story based on a dream I’ve had, but I have dreamed of stories I was writing at the time—some more vivid nightmares that, in the case of one project, actually made me stop writing it a few times, until the nightmare faded and the demands of the story overwhelmed the fear and got me back to work.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Stephen King got into the specific inspiration for his novel Cell:


The idea came about this way: I came out of a hotel in New York and I saw this woman talking on her cell phone. And I thought to myself, What if she got a message over the cell phone that she couldn’t resist, and she had to kill people until somebody killed her? All the possible ramifications started bouncing around in my head like pinballs. If everybody got the same message, then everybody who had a cell phone would go crazy. Normal people would see this, and the first thing they would do would be to call their friends and families on their cell phones. So the epidemic would spread like poison ivy. Then, later, I was walking down the street and I see some guy who is apparently a crazy person yelling to himself. And I want to cross the street to get away from him. Except he’s not a bum; he’s dressed in a suit. Then I see he’s got one of these plugs in his ear and he’s talking into his cell phone. And I thought to myself, I really want to write this story.

I pulled out this quote for my online Horror Intensive, too, mostly because, like my Lovecraftian dream of a few nights back, I was actually inspired by a very similar real life encounter for a scene in which a character mistakenly believes someone is insane, talking to herself, before the reveal of the cell phone earpiece. Something tells me there have been a good many books published in, say, the last ten years in which some variation on that scene exists.hungergamescover

What this comes down to, though, is that inspiration for whole books, or at least scenes within bigger stories, are happening all around you. But are you paying attention? You have to look for this stuff. You have to be open to the weird dream, the strange behavior of our fellow cell phone users, or maybe . . . the confluence of two competing inputs? Suzanne Collins, in an interview with School Library Journal, said she was inspired to write The Hunger Games when:

One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.

But then how does that moment of inspiration lead to the actual story, for Lovecraft, King, Collins, or you or me? Neil Gaiman maybe said it best in his blog post “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”:

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

So, are you dreaming? Are you paying attention to the people around you? Are you letting TV or other media sink in? But most important, are you recognizing the great idea when it hits you, then sitting your butt down and writing it?


—Philip Athans








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