Tag Archives: how to

Nine Worlds: Making Horror


In this talk, Ian will dive into what’s really going on when you’re trying to create strong emotions such as horror in computer games, LARP, and other media, drawing on examples from recent titles he’s worked on. He’ll discuss strategies you can use to elicit specific responses from your players through design, writing, art, sound and gameplay.
Speaker: Ian Thomas

This presentation was fascinating, but primarily aimed at the gaming and LARP communities. I only really took notes on the bits that can be applied to writing, so this is NOT a write-up of the whole presentation. If that’s something you particularly want to read, say so in the comments and I’ll see if Ian is willing to do a more comprehensive write-up.

All In Your Head

To start with, this is about making your audience viscerally feel whatever emotion it is you’re trying to engender. It’s a step beyond show or tell – you need to put the emotion (be it horror or anything else) in people’s heads, not in the medium. Writing down an emotion like horror or joy in detail is exactly how not to do it. Too much of a reveal and your reader will react intellectually, rather than emotionally. Seeing things often robs them of their power, especially in a horror setting. Don’t tell people how they’re feeling – construct scaffolding for them to attach their own feelings.


The Uncanny Valley effect is a good one to tap into – the hypothesis that replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like the real thing elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion

We’re programmed to take scant pieces of information and build stories out of them, even when it’s not good for us (making us scared, sad, etc). The trick is getting your audience into a receptive state so they tell those stories to themselves without you needing to fill in the blanks. The stories they build will be far more emotive to them than anything you can write, because they’ll create building blocks out of their own experiences. Leave gaps for those building blocks, and Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

Ian drew a comparison with comic books and graphic novels. The panels only provide flash-frames of action – the gaps between them, the white spaces, are everything else which the reader instinctively fills in. Allowing your audience that autonomy makes them complicit in telling the story and therefore more involved in it. The gaps build empathy between your audience and the character, which allows you to collapse the audience and the character into the same space. Things that impact the character will then impact the audience on an emotional level.

Engaging the Senses

Drown the audience in your world. It’s not just about the story on the page (or screen, or whatever). Disframe it, take it out into their lives. Hitchcock’s Psycho announced during the marketing campaign that they’d have paramedics on hand at every cinema in case of heart attacks among the viewers. This was nonsense, but it meant the audience was already on edge before the screen was even turned on. It made the story tangible outside the imagination. In written examples, S. by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams uses inserts like postcards and passed notes to bring the story off the page and fundamentally more tangible.


S. has multiple story levels, one of which is about people passing the main text between each other with notes and postcards inserted. I believe in that story because I can touch the postcards myself.

Fear (or love, or hatred) of certain things isn’t universal, and therefore universally relatable. [Jeanette Ng has a great Twitter thread on the laziness of cut-and-paste cultures in general.] It’s much more reliable to tap into more primal instincts, rather than things which have a certain anchoring in culture or experience. To do that, to properly involve your audience in the story, you need to scare them as well as the character. This is rather more applicable in gaming but definitely worth bearing in mind in books. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski apparently does it very well indeed (I confess I’ve not read it but it sounds awesome).

When it comes to using cultural taboos to shock or horrify, be really careful. It’s very easy to make your audience angry or disengaged at you, rather than drawn deeper into the story. You can ease the way by having your character react in the same way as the reader likely would, but seriously… delicate touch and common sense required.

And that’s all from Nine Worlds, folks! Lots of food for thought, and a couple of follow-up blogs incoming. Hope you enjoyed it!

In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis


This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.


Not cool, guys. Not cool.


A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

Nine Worlds: Foreign Languages in Genre Fiction


A discussion of how and why real – not invented – languages are used in science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction, on page and screen. How accurately are they used and does verisimilitude matter? What assumptions do authors make about their audiences’ linguistic competence and identity?

Katrin Thier, Catherine Sangster, Simon Trafford

I loved this panel. I’ll state that now, for the record, because I took a lot of notes and might be about to go off on an enthusiastic rant. Much of what was said falls firmly into the ‘oh my god, that’s so obvious now you’re explained it’ category, but it mostly wasn’t stuff I’d thought of before.

Languages, like so many things in culture (colour is another prime example), are almost always used in literature to call up particular associations. They can alienate the reader or evoke particular emotions. They can demonstrate a difference in culture, social strata or education. In one period of British history, for example, the poor spoke English and the rich spoke French.

How to Use Language in Fiction

If you use a real language and you get it wrong, there are people who will notice. As with any poorly researched detail, this is how you lose or even antagonise readers. Google Translate won’t cut it. Find someone who can actually speak the language, or make it obvious that it isn’t correct (like the Latin in Harry Potter). Bear in mind that a lot of languages have sounds, letters and grammatical structures that English doesn’t. It’s very easy to get it wrong. That said, there’s a general assumption of monolingualism in modern audiences, meaning you need to use fairly basic markers to identify a foreign language. This will inevitably impact the accuracy.


Gallifreyan doesn’t even use the same method of writing

Don’t have foreign characters sprinkle bits of their own language into common speech. This isn’t realistic. If they’re going to drop back into their mother tongue, make it a whole sentence. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the reader can’t understand what they’re saying – the characters don’t have to understand each other either! You can always have one character ask for a translation, or an explanation of pronunciation if it’s important. Alternatively, you can have written translation devices so the listening character doesn’t understand the conversation in real-time but can review a report later. Biological translators, such as the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, are also a neat way around it.

If you’re using multiple languages and want the reader to be able to understand them all, one easy way of doing so is to use different fonts to denote different languages. Bear in mind, though, that not all editors and publishers like this. It also creates a variable look which might throw the reader out of immersion so think hard before you take this route.

Creating a Language

There’s a difference between a constructed language (such as Sindarin), and a fake language (such as Dovahzul) which mashes exotic sounds together without an underlying structure. If you’re going to use the language in any way extensively, a constructed language is a better bet.

What language tree would your created language come from? What associations does that bring about the culture which uses it? Remember that it needs to tie in and impact your fantasy culture (see the mention of German and Japanese two weeks ago). Also remember that insults and idioms tend to be culturally specific. In the past, I’ve looked up insults native to the particular culture I’m using as a base and translated them, which has given me some nicely unusual turns of phrase as well as that slightly exotic association.


You can go much further back than this. Language trees are awesome maps of history.

Also, remember that, when you’re creating genre fiction, you’re not creating in a vacuum. The influences on you are also familiar to your audience. If you co-opt Klingon, there’s a good chance they’ll notice.

There’s no agreed models for how to transcribe non-standard varieties of English (such as Scottish). As a writer, you need to achieve a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Personally, I don’t like reading literal pronunciations on the page – I think the reader has to work too hard to understand what’s going on and what the accent is, which throws them out of immersion. If you can make it clear with use of vocabulary and idiom, that’s much smoother.

Examples & Associations

Welsh was used in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper to evoke mystery and ancient magic. There’s a psychological association with something alien but not foreign, which is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Mandarin was used in Firefly to signpost a new / future developed culture and history. It showed natural bilingualism as a common thing, even for uneducated characters. It was also a handy way of getting around the real life censors! The problem, however, is that it called up connotations that weren’t then fulfilled – read Frustrations of an American Asian Whedonite to see some of the traps of using a real world language without following through on the implications.


For an English-Mandarin culture, there’s an odd lack of Asian people in the Verse

Latin is the archetypal dead language, even though it’s not that dead! (Still actively used in science and medicine, for example.) There are a number of entrenched attitudes towards it, which always condition how we feel about the thing it’s being used for. Firstly, it’s indivisible from Western culture, easily recognisable and doesn’t need to be explained. By using Latin, you are making a very strong statement about the background culture. It is a status language which carries ideas of antiquity (both classical and renaissance), education (law, medicine, science), and religion.

In Harry Potter, ‘low’ spells such as cleaning have a Germanic base; ‘high’ spells have a Latin base. There are strong status implications, and possibly also gender ones. Interestingly, the two spells which use a Greek base are both healing spells. There’s apparently a fascinating essay called Ancient Tongues in the Wizarding World by M.G. DuPree which is well worth a read, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find an online link.

This led me onto a really interesting conversation with Simon Trafford after the panel. What about using other dead (deader) languages? I don’t speak Latin but I have used the one language I do know – Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) – in my writing. How does that work? We decided that the more esoteric the language, the more work you have to do to explain where it comes from and set up the associations you want the reader to make. You do, however, have much greater freedom in defining those associations. Latin is instantly recognisable but you’re locked into working with the reader’s understood connotations.

Next week: women in SFF publishing.

Who Says: Styles of Narration


Okay, for the final academic post of the year, let’s plunge into some technical terms. Take a deep breath – this one gets a tad complicated.

Diegesis & Mimesis

It can get even more complicated than that but lets stay simple for now

It can get even worse than this but lets stay simple for now…

Choosing your narration style is absolutely critical to telling the story in the best possible way. I usually have to experiment with both first and third person for at least a chapter before I work out which one suits this particular tale better. With Corpus, I actually got about 20,000 words in before realising that 1POV wasn’t the best choice. Be open-minded, and willing to change. It’s for the good of the story.

Now, I previously thought that the options were basically limited to first person, third person (close or not), or omniscient. Strictly speaking, second-person exists but it’s frankly weird and the stories that it works for are so rare as to be on the list of endangered species. According to Jeremy Hawthorn, author of Studying the Novel, however, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Fair warning – a lot of this blog post will be based on what he had to say on the subject.

First, what is diegesis and mimesis? They’re Ancient Greek terms that, according to the Wikipedia definition, mean ‘narration’ and ‘imitation’. Or, to put it another way, ‘tell’ and ‘show’.

Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of action that is enacted. Diegesis is the telling of the story by a narrator. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from “outside” in the form of commenting on the action or the characters. ~ Wikipedia

So, basically, diegesis involves a narrator of some kind to tell the story whereas mimesis doesn’t. Mimesis is therefore non-personified omniscient POV. You can have personified omniscient – where there’s an actual person who sees and knows all, and is telling the story – but again, it’s pretty rare. Given that this post is primarily about narration, we can happily forget about mimesis and concentrate on diegesis.

Within diegesis, Hawthorn breaks it down into three sub-types: extradiegetic, intradiegetic, and autodiegetic. Confused yet? Totally fair. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

  1. Extradiegetic: the narrator is apart from or in some way above the story they are narrating. Usually means it’s a second-hand account and the narrator isn’t a character in the main action. Frame narrators are often extradiegetic (see below).
  2. Intradiegetic: the narrator is involved in the story they are narrating, but not the central character. A lot of crime books have intradiegetic detective narrators, as the protagonist is usually either the victim, the survivor or the criminal.
  3. Autodiegetic: where the narrator is also the main character. Like ‘autobiography’.

Note that diegesis doesn’t just apply to 1POV. If you’re doing 3POV, you’ll still make these distinctions.

Frame Narration

A frame narrator is a third person recounting what has been told or is being told to them. It can vary in how it’s done – either with an introduction of the framing at the beginning and end of the story, or with narrator’s comments interspersed throughout. The advantage is that you get the personal and emotional touches of 1POV, but with added authorial reliability (see below). The risk is the loss of tension and immediacy. It’s a less common technique these days although, having said that, it’s how both The Imitation Game and Interview with a Vampire were done.

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, repeating what Victor Frankenstein told him

Authorial Reliability

Or lack thereof. Can your readers trust the narrator? It’s not just a question of whether the narrator is actively lying or misleading – you also need to consider questions of bias, and what information the reader will therefore take away that isn’t necessarily the whole picture.

Source affects the selection , the authority and the attitude towards what is recounted of the narrative – and thus, of course, the effect on the reader or listener. ~ Hawthorn

The closer the reader is to the narrator, the less reliable that narration becomes. What you lose in reliability, you gain in manner and emotion. It’s a balance you as the writer need to decide.

First person narrative is limited in scope… [but] unlimited in manner… Third-person narrative can hardly be subjective, but is basically reliable in the sense of being authorial. ~ Dieter Meindl

Is the narrator at ease or under pressure? Are they telling the whole truth, the partial truth, lying through their teeth – what do they gain by each? What does the reader gain by your narrative choice? These are all important things to consider.

Audience Complicity

This sort of ties into authorial reliability, and is mainly applicable to 1POV. Who is the narrator talking to, and why? Because that will impact the amount and type of information given. It may sound like a stupid question, but think about it. In Jane Eyre, the narrator is clearly talking directly to the reader – “Reader, I married him.” That’s unusual but not unknown. It could be that this is a written confession/will/letter to another character, who is also the reader, and therefore being addressed directly with a specific purpose in mind. It could be a lengthy inner monologue, in which case it’s likely to be far more honest. The point is that the style will be different for each recipient.

Then there’s narrative complicity, which works in both 1POV and 3POV:

A process whereby the reader is sucked into complicity with the narrator. We are amused with the narrator at [character]’s obtuseness and self-importance, and as a result of such passages we are likely to be far more malleable in the hands of the narrator, far more willing to accept his value judgements and assessments of characters. ~ Hawthorn

Essentially, it’s possible the narrator is aware of the audience in some way, and brings them on-side. This improves the amount of trust the reader places in the narrator, and therefore allows the narrator to manipulate that trust more. This technique can also be used to impact how emotionally connected the reader feels with the narrator. Frank Underwood in House of Cards is a brilliant example of a protagonist deliberately building audience complicity:

Types of Discourse

This also ties into authorial reliability, in that it depends on how things are reported. There’s three basic types of discourse:

  1. Direct: ‘He said “I love her.”‘
  2. Indirect / Reported: ‘He said that he loved her.’
  3. Free Indirect: ‘He loved her.’

There’s an important difference between Free Indirect Discourse and the other two. Direct and Indirect both have the character vocalising his thoughts, and he could be lying. Free Indirect is much closer to inner monologue – it’s a statement of fact, and therefore carries much greater weight of authorial reliability. More than that, it can be omniscient. The character in question may not realise yet that he loved her, and thus the audience is given insight before the character achieves it.

[Free Indirect Discourse] allows writers to move backwards and forwards between narrative comment and character consciousness, often with no apparent seams. ~ Hawthorn

Principle of Inertia

Basically, a fancy way of saying that readers will attribute statements or dialogue to the last named subject, so be careful of your labelling. Also called obstination.

Unless we are given good reason for changing the way we attribute statements to a particular source or consciousness, we tend to go on attributing them to the one already established as the operative one. ~ Hawthorn

Right, that was a bit of a gallop through a whole bunch of technical terms. To be honest, knowing the names is totally unnecessary, except that they help differentiate between concepts.

Anyway, thanks for your continued interest, have a lovely Christmas break, and I’ll be back in 2016!


Tridimensionality: Characters According to Egri


Lajos Egri is (was) an American-Hungarian writer who talked a lot about making characters believable. He came up with an approach which he called the ‘tridimensional character’, building personality out of three primary pillars:

Every object has three dimensions: depth, height, width. Human beings have an additional three dimensions: physiology; sociology; psychology. Without a knowledge of these three dimensions we cannot appraise a human being. It is not enough, in your study of a man, to know if he is rude, polite, religious, atheistic, moral, degenerate. You must know why.   ~ Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing

It feels to me like Egri is touching on the nature-nurture debate. His tridimensional approach builds the character out of appearance (nature) and background environment (nurture) as the two foundation pillars, and the impact these have had upon the psyche gives us unique characteristics. I completely agree with this approach – there is always a ‘why’ behind someone’s behaviour, and the ‘whys’ give us the keys to the character.

The Importance of Body

I naturally ascribe much more strongly to the ‘nurture’ side of the debate, but Egri makes the point that physicality has an important impact on the psyche. Gender affects how you are treated (not going into the politics of feminism on a writing blog, but yes, this is still very true); aesthetic appearance and how close it is to the cultural ideal has a massive impact on both happiness and treatment; disease, deformity and so on impact not only perception but also abilities. In the 2000 film Unbreakable Samuel L. Jackson’s character says the following about comic books:

See the villain’s eyes? They’re larger than the other characters’. They insinuate a slightly skewed perspective on how they see the world. Just off normal.

This idea of villains with a physical abnormality or defect of some kind is a really strong theme, particularly across the superhero genre. My question is: why do we do this? Why ascribe physical defects to villains and not heroes? Why do we link flawed physicality with flawed psychology so strongly when, rationally, we know that there’s no such link? Surely this is a perception that we should be working on disrupting. It happens very occasionally – Denzel Washington’s tetraplegic protagonist Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector, for example – but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Mr. Glass

Mr. Glass

Bone Structure

Egri set out a list of ‘bone structure’ questions for character creation, which he divided up into these three pillars. I don’t tend to use lists like this in character creation, at least not to start with, but every now and then I find it’s quite a useful exercise to run through one once I’ve started a project. It usually teaches me something I didn’t know about the character, even if it isn’t necessarily something important (like the fact they like to watch trashy daytime TV on their days off – something I doubt will ever come into the story). Anyway, for reference, here’s Egri’s list. I’d be interested to hear what you guys make of it.


  1. Sex
  2. Age
  3. Height and weight
  4. Colour of hair, eyes, skin
  5. Posture
  6. Appearance: good-looking, over- or underweight, clean, neat, pleasant, untidy. Shape of head, face, limbs.
  7. Defects: deformities, abnormalities, birthmarks. Diseases.
  8. Heredity.


  1. Class: lower, middle, upper.
  2. Occupation: type of work, hours of work, income, condition of work, union or nonunion, attitude towards organisation, suitability for work.
  3. Education: amount, kind of schools, marks, favourite subjects, poorest subjects, aptitudes.
  4. Home life: parents living, earning power, orphan, parents separated or divorced, parents’ habits, parents’ mental development, parents’ vices, neglect. Character’s marital status.
  5. Religion
  6. Race, nationality
  7. Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports.
  8. Political affiliations
  9. Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines he reads.


  1. Sex life, moral standards
  2. Personal premise, ambition
  3. Frustrations, chief disappointments
  4. Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic.
  5. Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist.
  6. Complexes: obsessions, inhibitions, superstitions, phobias.
  7. Extrovert, introvert, ambivert.
  8. Abilities: languages, talents.
  9. Qualities: imagination, judgement, taste, poise.
  10. I.Q.