Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

How to not react like a petulant loser when you’re reminded that your writing is less original than you thought it was

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. For someone who’s writing an epic fantasy series, I’m not especially well-read in my field. I tend to read the dusty old work of long-dead authors, along with Star Trek apocrypha, popular history books, and anything by Neil Gaiman. I have a fairly embarrassing ignorance of what’s currently being written by successful fantasy authors, or enjoyed by fantasy readers, or  – perhaps crucially – picked up by fantasy publishers. I’m aware that these are the sort of things that are vital knowledge for anyone who is hoping to court commercial success as an author, so recently I’ve been taking steps to combat my ignorance.

This began with following up on a recommendation from a friend to read Temeraire by Naomi Novik. My friend clearly knows me very well. I’m a little late to the ball with this one, given that 2016 will mark the ninth book in the series, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.


Novik was an easy choice of companion for an exploratory foray into contemporary fantasy because she has essentially taken my favourite historical novels – the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, which inspired the film Master and Commander – and followed the time-honoured fantasist’s tradition of adding dragons. Temeraire portrays the Age of Sail with the same sublime sophistication as O’Brien (I suspect Novik might adore him as much as I do) and her integration of fantasy elements into real world history is absolutely seamless. I have ordered the second book in the series before even finishing the first.

So that went rather well. I’m hoping that reading a series like Temeraire will benefit my understanding of what publishers expect from a long book series, as well as improving my style through osmosis. To find more authors, I’ve also been trawling through the epic fantasy lists on Goodreads. But this has lead me to an unpleasant realisation.

I think I can safely enjoy Temeraire because it is sufficiently similar-but-different from the stuff I’m writing, and the same might be true of a lot of other epic fantasy. But when I saw that people are enjoying books that are a little more similar to my own work, my reactions were different. Specifically, if you must know, I had a small temper-tantrum and then felt embarrassed and confused about why. So, being a millenial, I thought I’d blog about it.

I won’t waste further space with a comprehensive description of what I’m currently writing. What I will say is that it falls into a niche which is growing in popularity and (as I was initially dismayed to discover) is already sufficiently populated with books to constitute a subgenre, which has been given the moniker of ‘flintlock fantasy’. There are two series in particular which filled me with no small panic when I discovered their existence. Here they are, the rotten blighters:

  Promise of Blood  Shadow Throne

The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan and the Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler. They are doing precisely what I’m trying to do: taking the tropes and hallmarks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and moving the context forward by several centuries into a world of gunsmoke, brass buttons, square-rigged tall ships, centralised bureaucracy, natural philosophy, revolution, colonialism, and even sillier hats.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that anyone writing a series about gunpowder colonialism in a fantasy setting (like me) would enjoy reading books about gunpowder and colonialism in a fantasy setting (like these). Which is why I was so frustrated with my own first reaction to the existence of these books: mostly irritation about their existence, and dread that I’d been hopelessly left behind on the starting blocks.

Do all aspiring authors feel the same way, I wonder? Are we so personally invested in our writing that our first reaction is one of childish jealousy, rather than a feeling of kinship, when we encounter other authors writing similar material?

I’m aware of how I should feel. I see authors talk on Twitter about how anyone who aspires to join their number should view other authors as comrades and helping hands, never competitors. There is room enough in the publishing world that two books may be similar without one of them displacing the other, and when readers have a taste for a particular subgenre they are usually hungry for more books to be written in the same vein by different authors. I should feel encouraged, not disheartened, that there is similar material being written. People in the industry are willing to publish it, audiences enjoy reading it, and it sells well enough for writers to be able to write trilogies and pentologies. Even nonologies, in Naomi Novik’s case!

Temeraire in Flight
Dragons and tall ships: flintlock fantasy at it’s finest

This is good, because I envision my series as being quite long. I’ve heard that trilogies are in vogue at the moment, and I was starting to worry that the number of books in the Discworld (41) and Aubrey/Maturin (20½) series had given me unrealistic expectations of the extent to which publishers and readers would be willing to indulge me. At least now I know that a longer series is feasible, if it’s well-written.

Having spent time thinking about it, I’m now mostly just looking forward to reading these books. My bookseller sister is working on acquiring them for me at a discount price, and when they arrive I will devour them and tell you about my impressions. But I’d be lying if I said that I’m not feeling apprehensive. I hope I can simply enjoy them and appreciate their fine qualities, but I’m worried that they might leave me gnashing my teeth or feeling like I need to make drastic alterations to my first draft, lest I’m accused of being a copycat.

There’s a certain irritation that I’m not the one treading boldly into virgin territory, going where no author has gone before and writing something truly original. But of course, nothing is truly original. We are all, to an extent, copying Tolkein, and recycling the same ideas that have formed the building blocks of fantastic storytelling since Homer’s first recitation of the Iliad. If there are already footprints in the snow of flintlock fantasy then maybe I should be glad I’m not the first one pressing out into the snow with no path to follow. Perhaps that’s appropriate for someone writing about colonialism: Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas. Nor will I be the first person to write flintlock fantasy. Others went before me. I can see what worked for them and what didn’t, emulate their successes, and try to navigate around any shoals that they might have got caught up on.

And now if I’m at a party and someone asks me what kind of stuff I’m writing, at least I have a better answer than “it’s sort of like Game of Thrones with muskets in it…”

Drama versus Prose: An Overview and a Challenge

So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.

But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.

Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?


Drama masksIn my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.

And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.

“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.

For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.

There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.

For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)

Hamlet“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.

So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.

This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.

But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!

Writing for Children (and how to do an at least halfway-decent job at it)

Today I’m talking about the writing project I’ve been working on most recently. I’ve been busy—traveling to visit family and attending to some projects with tight deadlines—so, sadly, I still haven’t made any headway on either of the stories I mentioned in my last post. What I’ve been doing lately is of a fairly different nature. Last week I wrote a series of short skits (that I will also direct and act in) for my church’s upcoming Vacation Bible School.

I know. It’s hardly lofty or literary writing. It’s not a deeply involved sci-fi story, and it’s not even written in the same medium as a novel. (I’d like to talk more about the differences between drama and prose, but that may be a post for another day.) I’ll be honest: as you might have guessed from my descriptions, these skits are geared toward children, and they’re designed specifically for teaching moral and spiritual lessons, in a way that some might understandably consider didactic. I wanted to write a post on this project, because it’s my most current creative writing experience. But I admit I had some trouble with the question of “how can simple skits like these relate to the writing of more ‘serious’ fiction?”

Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children's books that are still well-loved by many adults.
Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children’s books that are still well-loved by many adults.

But, according to a long-standing principle of writing fiction, a book written only for children is a bad book. A good children’s book (or skit, etc.) will be enjoyable to children but also appeal to adults, because the author hasn’t watered down the quality just because it’s for kids. If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis espoused this belief on children’s writing (or one like it) in An Experiment in Criticism, and our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me of it when I asked him if he had any ideas for my post. So now I’m trying to see whether or not my skits can be counted as “good” children’s fiction by appealing to people of all ages.

As I’ve already admitted, these skits I’ve written are not literary or extremely profound. Yes, they are mostly episodic in nature, and yes, they do each feature a “Brady Bunch” sort of ending in which characters verbally recognize a moral, apologize to each other, and resolve their conflicts nicely and neatly by the end. That’s kind of dictated by the nature of doing only a ten-or-fifteen-minute skit for instructional purposes. In fact, I might say that the quick, clean-cut moral resolutions are more due to the time constraints than to the age of the audience. In any case, due to the nature of the beast, these skits inherently have some qualities that definitely seem non-literary and would be seen as bad writing if they appeared in serious fiction.

Nonetheless, that’s not all they have. When I write skits like these, I do make an effort to write for adults as well, because 1) I know that the leaders helping with VBS will also be watching them, and 2) I’m an adult and I like to feel clever to myself with my writing. So, in accordance with the above principle about good and bad children’s writing, here are some qualities in my skits that I hope will appeal to both children and adults:

  • Humor. When you’re writing for children, you’ve got to make it fun. But shouldn’t writing for adults be enjoyable too? I try to fill each skit with jokes that, while still not incredibly clever or original, can be appreciated by both children and adults (as long as the adults like corny puns, which I happen to personally). In fact, sometimes the humor is more for adults than for kids, because the youngest class of children (four-year-olds) doesn’t understand the wordplay. Nonetheless, I still include one goofy, comic relief character who often tells puns. But the humor doesn’t exist in isolation; more serious characters react to the puns but still show off their own eccentricities as well. For example:

Megan: As camp guides, you and I will be responsible for watching over the activities and making sure all of our campers have the most awesome time they can!

Jared: Wow! That sounds pretty intense! [Smiles and points as if he’s just made a hilarious joke.]

Megan: [Confused.] Yes, um…very intense…

Jared: Get it? Intense? Like, “in tents”? [Slaps knee and laughs loudly and obnoxiously.]

Megan and Sam: [Groan and facepalm.]

Megan: A movie, huh? That does sound kind of interesting. What’s it about?
Jared: It’s about a park, not so different from this one, except it’s full of huge, tall giraffes. And then the giraffes escape and go wild and try to eat everyone in the park!

Megan: Oh, that’s silly. Giraffes don’t eat people. They just eat plants!

Jared: Well, in this movie, the giraffes are ferocious hunters with huge fangs, and it’s awesome!

Megan: That still sounds silly. What’s the name of this movie, anyway?

Jared: It’s called…Giraffe-ic Park!

Megan: [Sarcastic.] Oh, wow. What an original idea.

Jared: The first movie has a boy giraffe and a girl giraffe falling in love. And there’s a really cute baby giraffe.

Megan: A BABY GIRAFFE? OH MY GOODNESS! I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS! [Rushes over and sits down with them.] I can’t wait to see that baby giraffe! I bet it’s gonna be sooooooo cute!

  • Morals. Again, the moral messages here can’t be too complex or obscured as they might be in more serious fiction, and that’s just the nature of this type of writing. Nonetheless, the moral principles conveyed apply not just to children but to people of all ages. Furthermore, I tried to bring them away from just a quaint platitude in a Bible verse into the realm of real-life application. For example, one skit is about the dangers of hurtful words. In addition to just quoting Bible sayings about words, I also want to show, in a realistic way through the characters, that hurtful words don’t solve anything, and that encouraging and affirming others is important. Do kids need to learn that? Sure. But so do a lot of adults these days.

Sam: So, you and Jared got into an argument, and you both said some mean things to each other. Is that right?

Megan: Yes…that’s right.

Sam: And his words were hurtful to you?

Megan: Yes! They hurt a lot!

Sam: And did saying mean things to him make you feel better?

Megan: Yes! Well, no. I mean, a little bit at first, maybe. But now I just feel awful about the whole thing!

Sam: Even though you can do a lot of bad things with your tongue and with your words, you can do a lot of good with them too!

Jared: Oh yeah? Like what?

Sam: Well, how about this? Megan, I think you’re a great part of our team! I like that you’re always hard-working and focused on the important things!

Megan: Oh…well, thanks for saying so.

Sam: Jared, I think you’re a lot of fun to be around! You bring a lot of good energy and enthusiasm to our team. Plus, I like your jokes!

Jared: Yay! Thanks, Safari Sam!

Sam: See how much better it feels when you use your words to say nice things instead of mean ones? When you encourage and strengthen each other instead of trying to hurt?

  • Creativity. What I love about writing these skits is that they allow me to be creative and have fun onstage, and this sort of fun (costumes, visual spectacle, etc.) appeals to children and to young-at-heart adults. Here’s a quick run-down of the most creative element I included this year.
  • When performing these skits, I work with high-school or middle-school-aged volunteers. Thus (if I write myself in at all), I usually make myself the older leader of some group, and have their characters be my underlings. For example, when we did a medieval theme a few years ago, I was the king, and the other actors were my knights and ladies. Last year, they were secret agents and I was the commander of their top-secret organization. This year’s theme is some blend of camping, mountain climbing, and an African safari, so I made myself the camp director and made them guides or counselors under me.
  • If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it's got to work for me too. Right?
    If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it’s got to work for me too. Right?

    But, in my opinion, camp guides aren’t quite as exciting as knights or secret agents. So I asked myself, “what can I do to make this more exciting and fun?” And the theme-appropriate answer was to make one of the other actors into not a camp guide, but a lion. Yes, a friendly, cartoonish, anthropomorphic pet lion, with a limited vocabulary about the size of Scooby-Doo’s, who the camp staff has taken under their wing. But a lion nonetheless. Because, adult or child, who wouldn’t rather see a lion onstage than another boring old human?

  • Having a lion as a main character is another source of comic relief to the skits, but also a chance to do a lot of visually fun things, like tackle other characters or chase them around the stage. And I think it adds a nice touch to the skits overall. I anticipate that the kids will love seeing the lion (the youngest ones will likely be ecstatic), and the adults will have fun with it as well.

So that’s what I’ve done to try to make my children’s writing slightly less childish and make it fun for adults as well. Did I do a good job or do I still need some work? Have you ever written for children? What approaches do you use to make it appealing for everyone?

Creative Nonfiction: A Brief Overview

In my last post a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I wanted to write about creative nonfiction next (and also provided a brief example in the form of a pseudo-epic narrative poem about recent events of my life). So, without further ado, here’s a bit more on the topic of creative nonfiction:

I started getting seriously into creative nonfiction about three years ago. My school was offering a class on it as a summer elective, and, having already taken classes on creative fiction and poetry, I figured I’d give this genre a shot. In that class, we learned about how creative nonfiction has been gaining a lot more recognition and popularity in recent years, in the forms of biographies and memoirs and blogs about one’s own life. We sampled some prominent authors who have

"Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris
“Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris

dealt in the genre, ranging from the essays of David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace to

the autobiographical works of Tim O’Brien and even Tina Fey. Also, as part of the requirements for the class, we began our own blogs and had to post in them on a regular basis. That was when I began my personal WordPress blog about the many adventures of my own life, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. In fact, for these past few years, even when I’ve been too busy to devote much time to the larger fiction stories that I’ve wanted to work on, I’ve still kept up with a good amount of creative nonfiction through blogging and other outlets.

Of course, if you’re new to this genre or you haven’t dealt much in creative nonfiction before, then you may have a few questions. The main questions I anticipate at this point are, “What exactly is creative nonfiction?” and “Why are you writing about nonfiction on a blog about writing fiction?” Those are great questions, and I’m glad you asked. I think I can answer both of them at once. I’ve touched on this already, but creative nonfiction (at least in the context that I’ll be speaking of it) is the art of writing about real-life topics, often one’s own life experiences, in a creative and entertaining way. It can range from celebrities writing their autobiographies to amateur bloggers writing about their last vacation. It’s writing and telling stories that just happen to be true. That’s why I think creative nonfiction can still be relevant and helpful to writing fiction, because they’re both forms of storytelling. They both involve characters, plot, narrative style, and other aspects and techniques that each writer has to hone and figure out as they go along. The main difference between the two genres is simply that the content of one of them happens to be true.

Or, at least, stories in creative nonfiction are as true as the writer’s memory can get them. There is an ongoing discussion in the genre (that we had to consider when I took the class as well) about how much embellishment is allowed in creative nonfiction, about whether details have to be exactly true in order to be truly called “nonfiction” or if a little leeway is allowed in the name of artistic license. That’s a big discussion, and I won’t get into all of it in this post, but for now let’s suffice it to say that stories told through creative nonfiction are more or less true—and, as the name suggests, they are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

And that’s the sort of thing I try to do on my blog too. I write about things I’ve experienced or lessons24720422_b811249d00_o I’ve learned in life, but it’s not just a bland, factual, objective report. I write funny anecdotes about friends or relationships or dating, and I use humor to highlight the funniest parts, or I try to play up the portrayal of myself as the awkward-but-endearing everyman underdog hero of the tale. Or I’ll write about a great achievement in my life and make myself out to be some grand epic hero—but usually still with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and self-awareness about how melodramatically I’m portraying my otherwise mundane circumstances. There’s a lot you can do with a nonfiction story—with the story of your own life—if you’re creative with it and you figure out how exactly you want to present the story to your readers. Maybe I’ll elaborate on my own techniques and style in a future post if there seems to be enough interest or material for it, but for now I’ll just say that the possibilities are endless for writers who are willing to explore them.

So now that you have the basics down, you should at least be able to start on writing creative nonfiction of your own (and, as with any genre, you can learn and improve more with practice over time). Next time you have writers’ block when it comes to fiction and you can’t think of anything original to write, stay in practice by trying some creative nonfiction. Write about your own life, whatever is on your mind or whatever interesting thing has happened to you that week. But do it creatively. Write about your own life just as if you were writing about characters in a story and crafting their adventures in the most skillful and artistic way you know how. Try it and see what you come up with!

A Brief Introduction to Creative Nonfiction

Greetings! I recently had a good idea of what to do next on this blog. I’d like to do at least one post (maybe more) about creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a topic that’s been rapidly rising in popularity for the past few years, and my own writing focuses have somewhat shifted in that direction as well. But also, even though it’s nonfiction, it has a lot of common principles that can be applied to writing fiction. It’s basically storytelling–telling your own story in a fun and interesting and exciting way–and so it can have a lot in common with other forms of storytelling too.CNF

So I wanted to do a post about that. And I will. But, like my good friend Selayna recently mentioned, I am also rather busy right now, with finishing up my master’s degree and final papers and thesis revisions and getting ready to graduate in a week and a half. (It’s so close! I’m super excited.) So, unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to go super in-depth into what I know about creative nonfiction. I probably will for (at least one) later week. But if you’ve never delved into the topic before, then hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to stick around.

For the time being, then, I’ll just leave you with my most recent work-in-progress: a creative nonfiction narrative poem about this final leg of my grad school journey. Enjoy!

Like Odysseus returning home from his journey,

Or Hercules performing his glorious labors,

I’ve come far enough to know that I’m unstoppable.

The pressure surrounds me on all sides, but I press forward,

Ignoring the crushing, crippling weight on my shoulders.

Through each excruciating essay,

Through massive mountains of grading,

Through every terrible thesis revision,

I beat on toward the green light at the end of the dock,

Knowing my quest is nearly complete

And I can hardly fail to grasp it.

When obstacles try to thwart me

with clouds of stress looming overhead,

Then I defy the stars,

Raise my fist up to the heavens

and shout with all my might,

“I am Samuel, Grad Student of Grad Students!

Look on my words, ye mighty, and despair!

I am he who has read the unabridged entirety of Moby-Dick!mobydick

I am he who won the second place arts and humanities award at the Graduate Research    Symposium!

I am he whose thesis draft is a full hundred pages long,

And I shall not be denied!”

With Faustian monomania I stay set on my course,

An inflexible severity of purpose,

Hunting that elusive white whale of success and satisfaction.

Leaving no stone of my victory unturned,

I murder sleep just like Macbeth to complete every last little part,

Pushing deadlines and transcending limitations.

I toil tirelessly through the night

On the strength of caffeine

And the tragic flaw of my own hubris.

But even the great Gilgamesh was tainted by mortality,

And even King Arthur had a final fall—

And, well, for all of their dauntless determination,

it’s not like things worked out so great

for Faust, Ahab, or Gatsby, either.

So even I come to the end of myself

With only so many hours in a night

And so much energy I can exert,

My sudden halt plunges me all the way down

To the feet of a merciful father

And the broken concession that I still need help.

Oh, I’d much rather plow through on the strength of my own pride

Than accept one more deadline extension,

One more admission that I couldn’t do it all in time on my own.

I resist grace because change is painful

Just like O’Connor always said,

But as I lose my wooden leg

And rest my weary eyes

And put it all away to come back to tomorrow,

I know once again that I’m not invincible

But maybe it’ll still be okay.

Science Fiction and Human Nature

I love science fiction, and I’ve consumed quite a lot of it–books, movies, comics, and more–in my day. And as much as I love an epic quest or a final showdown where the hero defeats the villain in some spectacular way involving super powers and futuristic technology and lots of flying colors, there’s one thing I’ve been noticing lately about sci-fi. It’s that good sci-fi is not necessarily about technology or the future or quests to save the world from evil madmen. Sure, those things are great, but they shouldn’t necessarily be at the heart of the story, and sometimes they can even distract from the main focus. Rather, the best sci-fi is about human nature and what real people would be likely to do with a particular technology or science.

Of course, this principle may sound basic; an understanding of human nature is essential to any good fiction. But it’s something I’ve been noticing especially in science fiction lately. A friend of mine recently showed me a couple different short stories he was working on. Both took place in mostly normal worlds, but each had one thing that was different–one new technology or one new law that changed things for the way people lived. And the stories were not necessarily about the technology itself, or the government that built the technologies or put the laws in place, but they were about ordinary guys living in these worlds and using these different technologies as they saw fit–usually for personal pleasure or gain.They were about how human nature reacted to new developments in the world.

I don’t want to publish my friend’s ideas without his permission, so I won’t say specifically what twists and gimmicks his stories contained. But I’ll give you another example. I tried to emulate this same principle with a story I recently wrote on this blog, a five-part installment tentatively titled “Parallel.” In this story, a regular, flawed, unhappy guy finds a way to travel to alternate dimensions, but there’s not a big epic quest where he has to find his way home or battle evil parallel versions of himself. In fact, the narrator even makes the point directly to the reader that he’s not battling an evil alternate version of himself (okay, maybe I’ll be a little more subtle in my revisions). Rather, he just uses dimensional travel as a way to escape his failing marriage and unpleasant home life–and it works about as well as it ever does when normal people without interdimensional travel try to run away from problems in their lives and their marriages. The technology is a fun gimmick that helps make the story work, but it’s not the focus or the main point. The story is about this guy and his life and his marriage and the choices he makes.

Another good example is the film Inception. In the movie, there’s a technology that lets people enter each other’s dreams

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

and be in control of their actions within the dream world. Very little attention is given to how the technology works or why it was developed, because that’s not the point of the story; it’s basically just assumed that, in this fictional world, dream travel is possible. But again, dream travel alone isn’t the main point of the story. One could say that there is a “quest,” or at least a convoluted heist that the protagonists work to pull off to achieve a certain goal, but there’s more to it than that. The story is about the main character, Cobb, and his life, and his guilt over a past relationship with his wife. The existence of the technology in this world allows for the plot events to play out the way they did, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s about how the technology affects the lives and the psyche and the character development of realistic people. It’s about what human nature does with the technology.

I think I’ve made similar points to these in my previous post about dystopias, because a good dystopia, while often futuristic or post-apocalyptic, requires a focus on human nature as well. And speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopias, I’ll also use The Walking Dead as an example–both the comic books and the TV adaptation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, The Walking Dead is not about the exciting or gory action of human good guys killing zombie bad guys. No, it’s about how the need for survival changes people over time, how the breakdown of civilization brings out the worst in humanity. It’s about how, as Nietzsche warned, he who fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. Author Robert Kirkman stated in the introduction to the first collected volume of the comic series that he wanted the story to be more about realistic character development over time than just about zombies scaring people, and I for one believe he’s achieved that goal well. He doesn’t just deal with zombies, but with the effect that zombies have on human nature.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Your challenge, then, next time you’re lacking inspiration or need a new story idea, is to think about science fiction–and not just sci-fi itself, but about how sci-fi affects human nature. Come up with a technology or innovation that could exist in speculative fiction. If you can’t think of one that hasn’t been done already, then just come up with a new law or government regulation that could possibly be put in place. Then ask yourself: what would real, flawed, human beings do or act like in a world where this exists? What would you do with it? What would your friends or enemies do with it? Or what about that guy you met on the street with everything to gain and nothing to lose? Be creative, think about the implications that a certain innovation could have on human nature and behavior, and write the most real and natural story you can. You may be surprised at what you find.

Parody in Practice: “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving”

My first post for this blog was about parody. I explained how parodies, even though they’re by nature lighthearted and somewhat silly, can still be well-done stories with at least some serious meaning. Today, I’m revisiting the subject because I recently worked on a parody. About a year ago during the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas holiday season, I wrote a narrative poem that was nothing less than a blatant rip-off of Dr. Seuss‘s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and this year, I converted that poem into a quirky, tongue-in-cheek, animated short film. To get some context for this post, if you want to read what I originally wrote about parody, you can find that here, and if you want to watch the humorous and heartwarming video that is “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving,” you can do so here. (The video is probably more fun.)5

I’ll try to run through a bit of what I did with the narrative aspects of the video and how that applies to parodies overall. Maybe it’ll help you make cheesy but lovable holiday stories of your own, or at least to expand your writing horizons in some useful way.

Parodies play around with common tropes and conventions of fiction.

The point of parody and satire is usually to exaggerate and poke fun at things from existing fiction, whether it focuses on one individual work or author, or an entire genre or style. Obviously, my video of “The Scrinch” takes many of its cues from “The Grinch.” But it also borrows a few elements from A Christmas Carol, Elf, and just about every Lifetime movie in the history of Christmas in which a disgruntled, jaded, or heartless adult gradually comes to learn the true meaning of the holidays. Heck, if you take out the Christmas part and merely focus on a grumpy older person being softened up a bit by an enthusiastic child, then you could also add Despicable Me, Up, and even more Lifetime movies to the list of that trope’s appearances.

In a parody like “The Scrinch,” I wanted to incorporate that trope somewhat, but I also wanted to subvert it so as to avoid too much sappiness and mushy feelings. That’s why, instead of the Scrinch’s heart growing three sizes, I made it his stomach. I mean, let’s be honest–which one of those is really more likely to grow around the holiday season?

Parodies are funny.

This may seem obvious, but parodies are usually supposed to be fun and funny. People don’t really expect them to be brilliant, profound, original works of classic, sophisticated literature, so the reader and the author both have some leeway to let loose and have fun a bit. And they can use at least a few different types of humor. Parodies inherently rely on referential humor, which isn’t all that original, but at least it works; audiences like it when you can say, “Hey, I’m making fun of this thing you know about,” or even just, “Hey, I’m giving a slight nod to this thing you know about.”61

But parodies also have a lot of room for odd juxtaposition, for combining something funny with something that is usually serious. For example, “The Scrinch” uses somewhat elevated language, or at least a strict pattern of rhyme. When someone is reading rhyming poetry in a formal tone, the listener doesn’t expect jokes to come at them; they expect something warm and fuzzy about the holidays, or something old-fashioned from Dr. Seuss’s time, or maybe even Shakespeare’s. But instead, in “The Scrinch,” they get modernized and familiar terms like “ramen,” “Doctor Who,” and “Breaking Bad.” They also get quirky, uncommon words like “isthmus” to rhyme with “Christmas.” And, let’s face it, “isthmus” is a funny word no matter how you spin it.

If you have any skill or interest in the art or animation field, and you’re able to add visuals to your story like I did, then go for it! Silly, simple visuals can serve to increase the humor of a parody. That’s totally the only reason I went with MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker for this project, and it’s not at all because I have no skill with or access to any actual moviemaking technology whatsoever.

Parodies can still have some meaning and significance.

Just because parodies are fun, lighthearted, and cheesy doesn’t mean that they’re completely devoid of significance, or that you can just throw random elements together to make them work. No, parodies still have to adhere to certain conventions of genre and storytelling (even if they do so in an exaggerated way), and they still have to be well-made for their intended purpose. In many cases, satire and humor can be used to deliver a serious or relevant message, subtly criticizing or pointing out the flaws in a work, a genre, or even perhaps a real-life social institution.

I don’t claim that “The Scrinch” contains much subtle, profound social commentary on the nuances of real life. But it does contain a message about breaking out of your own priorities and appreciating family, friends, and fellowship during the holidays. Yes, it’s sappy and unoriginal, but it’s still a true and important message. As I mentioned earlier, I tried not to make that the main focus or spend too much time on super-serious sentiment, but hey, it’s in there somewhere.


Also, the Scrinch here seems to be a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student, in a story that, coincidentally, was also written by a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student. If I didn’t know better, then I might even suggest that the story contains perhaps the slightest hint of an autobiographical quality about the real life situations of its author. Good thing I know better, right?

Overall, parodies such as “The Scrinch” are a fun and enjoyable way to tell a story, but they, like any story, can still contain some depth and meaning as well. If you’re not sure what to write about this holiday season, try a parody (whether Christmas-y or not) and be sure, first and foremost, to have fun with it. (Then, maybe, if the mood strikes you, you can make a video of it and become the next YouTube sensation, but hey, one step at a time.)

Merry Christmas and happy writing, everyone.

Dystopian Fiction Story Challenge

The Hunger Games logo
Image found on Flickr Creative Commons

Dystopias are all the rage these days. From The Hunger Games and Divergent to Elysium and Transcendence and everything in between, It seems like about half of all summer blockbusters and 95% of all popular young adult novels feature a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society in some form or another. I exaggerate, of course, but not by much.

Some may ask just what exactly it is that makes dystopias so appealing and long-lasting in our society. There could be a lot of answers to this question, but after taking a class on Utopian Literature and incorporating the dystopian trend into my Master’s thesis (currently in progress), I think I’ve learned at least some of the answers.

The great thing about dystopias is not the futuristic sci-fi action or high-tech special effects. In fact, dystopias aren’t necessarily even about the future. Sure, many of them are set centuries in the future in societies that have gone too far in some direction or another. But they’re really just projections of concerns, fears, or criticisms that we have about our present-day society. Dystopias look at the flaws and problems in society currently and ask, “What if this was taken to an extreme? What if humanity continues going down this dark path for however many years in the future?” And then they answer those questions, sometimes in very poignant or haunting ways.

In my experience, there are at least two major criteria that make dystopias; most dystopias include one or both of these in some form or another.

1. In a different or future society, some advanced technology is misused or overused.

Many dystopias involve or focus on technology, which is not terribly surprising considering the haunting implications that some modern technologies could bring about. One classic example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human beings are grown from test tubes, mass produced just like automobiles, and psychologically conditioned from birth. Another example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, in which people become so dependent on technology to perform all their tasks that humans become lazy and obsolete. The wrong or excessive use of some technological innovation can provide fascinating insights into human nature and why man uses things the way he does.

2. In a different or future society, some wrong practice has become the law or the expected cultural norm.

Image found on Flickr Creative Commons
Image found on Flickr Creative Commons

In this sense, dystopias are not necessarily about technology or the future, but more so about human nature and human society. Literary critic Northrop Frye described a utopia as a society “governed by ritual habit,” so it’s not necessarily technology that goes wrong, but just human behavior and government. There are a number of literary dystopias worth looking into that don’t contain much science fiction, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Similarly, some more realistic American novels about secluded societies have been considered dystopian, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Some dystopian stories take place only in the near future and thus don’t include many technological differences from today’s time, such as the comic books V for Vendetta and Y: The Last Man.

3. Some dystopias combine both of the above criteria. For example, in The Hunger Games and Divergent, advanced technology plays a prominent role in the plot and the setting, but it’s not the main focus of the dystopia. The stories are more about the government and its restrictions on the people.

So, if you’re looking to write a dystopia, you shouldn’t necessarily start with the setting itself or the finer details of advanced technological trappings. Start with an idea about society and something that it’s doing wrong, or that it could conceivably be doing wrong in an extreme way in another time and place. Then flesh out the specifics from there. What is this society like? In what ways exactly are the people and/or the government taking things too far? What are the people like who will dissent or disagree with the values of their culture? What will happen when these two ideologies come into conflict?

As an example, I’ll use a dystopian novel that I’m currently working on (and, by “currently working on,” I mean that I wrote two chapters some time ago and am totally going to finish the whole thing one day when I have more time to write). I didn’t decide from the beginning that I wanted to write a dystopia. In fact, I wasn’t even intentionally brainstorming for story ideas at all. Instead, I was just feeling frustrated by our culture’s attitude toward relationships (a topic which I’ve written about more extensively on my personal blog) and society’s overemphasis on needing a romantic relationship to be happy. And then I got to thinking.

“What if, in the future, there was a society where this obsession with relationships was mandated by law—or at least by strict cultural expectations? What if, for example, people were required on their 18th birthday, as soon as they hit adulthood, to choose a partner to spend the rest of their lives with? What if people who remained single were outcasts or exiles? And what if there was a teenage boy coming up on 18 who wasn’t that interested in relationships and didn’t want to be forced to choose a partner before he was ready?” Suddenly the central premise and conflict of the story began to fall into place.

I asked myself other questions about this society, too. If people are forced to choose their perfect soulmate at only 18, then does that system actually work to foster positive and healthy relationships? Or would there still be divorce, unfaithfulness, and unhappiness in relationships, despite society’s best efforts? I concluded that these negative elements would indeed still exist in this world. Often, that’s a hallmark of what makes a work dystopian rather than utopian: society tries something that is meant to keep everyone happy and in line, but ultimately the system still falls apart because flawed human nature keeps coming through.

Image found at http://wizzley.com/what-is-a-dystopian-society/
Image found at http://wizzley.com/what-is-a-dystopian-society/

Your challenge is to write a dystopian story, either a short story or the beginning of something longer. (Each presents its own set of challenges. In a short story, you have limited space in which do a lot of important worldbuilding for your society; in a novel, you have much more room, but it obviously takes much more time and effort to finish!) Either way, start by trying to pinpoint a few flaws in society or human nature that you’ve noticed, and then ask yourself what it would be like if those flaws were made law or taken to the extreme. Ask yourself what life would be like for people who didn’t go along with the values of this culture. If you can answer these questions and flesh out some more details, then you’re well on your way to writing a thought-provoking piece of dystopian fiction!

The Less You Know, the More You Tremble

I write this in defiance of a friend of mine. She says “Paul, you and I have different levels of tolerance for horror. I like far scarier things than you do.”

She lies. She likes a certain type of horror. If it’s not thrashing about, blood everywhere, heads turning and vomiting, it’s not her type of horror. I do not appreciate this type of horror. It also relies on a level of shock and awe. Anyone can shock and awe. It takes little effort. A monster jumps out of the shadows and eats someone we liked. Or, you know, King Joffrey orders someone loses their head at whim and GRRM has stolen another beloved character from us. I rank the little brat right up there with Aliens vs Predator. But GRRM, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and anyone else who does suspense well, the other form of horror, approaches it very differently.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

I bring this up because of the game Don’t Starve. It’s an indie game that was released for free on the PS4 for PS Plus members. My friend laughed at it when the darkness killed her, after day one, and said it’s not scary to her. Well if I watch the first ten minutes of a horror flick, it’s generally a soft core porn. So no, day one isn’t that scary.

How the game scares you after day one, along with all those writers mentioned, is the unknown. In the below clip there was strange music in the dead of night. I had played over 100 days and never heard it. What could it mean? What horror was coming? I convinced myself more and more this was normal. Everything was okay with the world. But I was wrong, and in the darkness, far off in the recesses of my mind, shadows formed and took shape. They stole the light of my sanity along with my campfire.


Dear friends, those hands were a terror unbeknownst to me. When they first appeared, I pondered if they were reaching for my small, delicious, cartoon flesh. Were those outstretched claws trying to claim me into the night? I would rather brave the farthest reaches of my campfire’s light then get close to those obfuscating digits, stealing the very soul of all I am and was on this alien planet full of frightening delights: fire and light. Light made the known, even late in the evening, and these tore that knowing from me.

Obviously horror writers use this all the time. The greatest horror movies, long ago when they were black and white, were entirely based on the unknown. Even when we knew, it was kept at the edge of our perception. We wondered if there was something else, something benign. Maybe we were wrong about the malice crawling up our spine. For the sake of the character, we hoped. But we were wrong.

Check out the other awesome artwork from this awesome deviant. http://ticktocktinker.deviantart.com/
Check out the other awesome artwork from this awesome deviant. Along with the game in the other link provided. http://ticktocktinker.deviantart.com/


What about other writing such as fantasy, science fiction, and romance?

Game of Thrones spoiler, when Ned was taken in front of the crowd, weren’t we all wondering what would happen? Weren’t we all terrified? We had a good idea of how it ended, but it couldn’t. Not to him. After GRRM proved he would kill anyone, every time we turned the page was a moment of heart stopping suspense. In an interview, GRRM says that was his goal, and he accomplished it by showing anyone can die or be maimed in any manner of ignoble ways.

You’re still wondering about how romance novels use this. I reached page fifty or so in such a novel when I put it down and stated I learned what I could from the book. I learned a lot. There was a woman who debated putting on her sexiest underwear, in the moment of incredible heartbreak, and lay upon a man’s bed, waiting for him to walk in. It was a page of her thinking this, and suddenly she does it. The entire time you’re thinking, “No, she’s too sensible for this!” She wasn’t.

Another page or two of her traveling to his house, breaking in, and laying in his bed, wondering what would happen. Was she going to regret this in the morning? What would happen when he walked through that door? Would there be sex!? It’s a romance novel. There had to be sex!

She’s about to leave out of shame when the light turned on. The next fifteen to twenty pages went into how they looked at each other, what they were thinking, their little nuances and physical interactions. All the while you’re thinking, “When do I get to the good stuff?!” Or even if they’ll get to the good stuff. Sexual tension is an incredible unknown. In the end, they didn’t have sex. They would later, but I learned more than I thought I would from the book and didn’t want to cheapen it.

Think about sexual tension as suspense, though. Think about the unknown of dating. I’m in the midst of it right now. It’s scary. Is she playing with her hair because she likes me or is bored? She touched me, that’s good, right? Did she just check out that other guy? Do I go in for a kiss on the first date, or is that rushing it? What’s she going to think when the only furniture in my apartment is a bed? I so should not have asked her over. It’s not the same, terror inducing suspense we think of. But trust me, your reader is on edge. We’ve all been there. Dates never go how you think they’re going to. The woman you thought was uninterested could just as easily end up waking up next to you. Or the interested one can just as easily slap you.

What I’m getting at is explore the unknown. This world is terrifying because we make it that way. Our imagination is a minefield of insecurities. Stop filling in every detail, stop thinking it needs to be in the horror genre. Give sparse details, make us realize anything is possible, and let the reader fill in the holes with their greatest fears. The audience will do most of the writing for you.