Taking the Curse off the Curse

There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, "Hey, now, wait a minute!"

I'll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story's fundamental reality.

1. Show that it works, right away. Have your curse actually operating (or your vampire stalking, your magician performing prodigies, or whatever) right on page 1, so the reader knows that in this story, one of the rules is going to be that your particular curse works. Show it, don't tell it.

Star Wars starts out with a backdrop of stars and two spaceships blasting colored rays at another. Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you're in for from the beginning. Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-'em-up spaceflight. What you see is what you get.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possi-ble—this may be the best way. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story, what you're going to be doing within that accepted convention.

If you're embarking on thoroughgoing surrealism, then make that clear from the outset. The unfortunate protagonist of Kafka's Metamorphosis doesn't turn into an insect halfway through but in the very first sentence. State the premise, make the rules of your fiction clear, and go on from there.

2. Show that the curse has worked in the recent past. Sometimes this way is better, particularly ifyou're working with an unusual premise that will be entirely new to your readers and that they'll therefore be more resistant to than a familiar one. That way, your curse becomes, not a possibility, but an accomplished fact.

We know there's no arguing with the past: it's over. That psychological quirk, our willingness to accept something that happened in the past more readily than something claimed in the present, can work for you.

This can include having your curse (or unusual character or event) talked about before he/she/it actually appears, to prepare the ground. That's the way Melville sets up Ahab.

Or you can have a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively. The real and undoubted past event anchors and renders credible the present investigations, revelations, and developments.

You can also tie in the in médias res advice I gave earlier, in this regard—showing curse #2 threatening first, then dropping back to let the reader know about curse # 1 (or the fact that three teenagers have already been found mysteriously hickory-smoked to death or whatever your improbable premise may be).

3. Establish a reasonable character, and have him take the curse seriously. Don't have anybody doubting it, at least not for long. As readers, we're used to fictional conventions. We'll accept that in one story there's a secret door to elfland, and in another, killer tomatoes are thumping toward New York. It doesn't really do any good, anymore, to have some stooge still claiming on p. 183, "It can't be: another head growing out of her WHAT?"

The reader gets annoyed at such a character, who's still resisting what the reader has already accepted as a basic premise. A resident Doubting Thomas doesn't defuse incredulity, as he once served to do in earlier fiction for a more literal-minded age; he just looks like a dolt.

Instead, have your whole cast of characters either ignorant of the curse, or worried/hopeful about it—just the one, or the other. Once the reader has accepted your premise, anybody who stubbornly refuses to do likewise is obviously a jerk (and you might want to use that fact to undercut a character at some point). Show that in your story, ordinary, reasonable people— notjust those privy to the Secret Knowledge of the Ancients, like Dr. Van Helsing—take your premise very seriously indeed.

4. Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. Paraphrasing the trenchant observation of a former Dr. Who, the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) you surprise in your suburban bathroom is a lot scarier than the one encountered on a glacier in exotic Tibet.

Realistic details make for realism. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, and made ordinary things the springboards for horrifying and unlikely occurrences: remember the shower scene in Psycho? Remember the birds roosting patiently (and in ever-increasing numbers) on the jungle gym, waiting for school to let out?

Things can get more and more bizarre as your story progresses, but if you anchor your improbability solidly in the everyday to begin with (nice urban professional couple—husband a little moody, wife pregnant: Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby), the reader will accept it.

If you're going to have, as a character, the eight-armed ambassador from the Wobbly Worlds, don't introduce him/her/it doing something alien and incomprehensible. Open the story with him/her/it swearing at a cabdriver in midtown Manhattan or searching myriad pockets for change of a ten. Or have the alien doing something plain and simple, like watching the sunrise or playing a flute. Balance the extraordinary with the mundane to give the reader a solid point of contact.

5. Use just one curse at a time. Don't have more than one major improbability per story. If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on, as in Peter Straub's Ghost Story, they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place. But don't turn your story into Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, and the Smog Monster. That just turns into embarrassed giggles, not serious (if temporary) belief.

Don't cross genres, either. Don't have what, for 2/3 of the story, we're led to believe is a normal (if insane) mass murderer, in a police-procedural sort of story, and then change gears and reveal that the murderer is a filthy Arcturan spy after our electromagnetic secrets or a Neanderthal thawed from a handy nearby glacier. State your rules, make your promises, at the outset; then stick to them.

However, you're free to extrapolate, as Stephen King does in 'Salem'sLot:. His premise is your basic vampire. His extrapolation is that, in an isolated town with only so many bite-ees available, one vampire with one victim per night would lead very shortly, by geometric progression, to virtually everybody in town's becoming vampiric. (One bites one; two bite two, the following night, for a total of four; four bite four more, and now there are eight, just in three days, and so on.) That's a valid, reasonable extrapolation from the initial premise. Science fiction does a lot of similar extrapolations—one speculative hypothesis, and then the rest solidly logical and reasonable, given that initial premise.

Keep to one central premise, and what hangs by it. Refrain from throwing in kitchen sinks.

6. Don't undercut your curse. Don't play it for laughs, ever, if you want it otherwise taken seriously. Don't show it was all a dream, or not really a curse at all, or all due to a fever hitherto unknown to science. A contemporary reader's belief isn't too hard to earn, but can be lost in a flash. Don't explain your curse away or make fun of it. Your monster can show up wearing a Mickey Mouse watch (or, as in the case of King's It, a clown suit)—but it'd better be a very sinister Mickey Mouse watch, worn for a solid and serious reason, not because you're laughing at your own story and making it look silly. That has all the charm of a comedian getting hysterics over his own gags while the audience prepares to pelt him with week-old kumquats.

Your readers can't express their indignation quite so directly; but they'll flip the page or do something more interesting, like sort coupons. And they won't come back. Ever. Why risk that, for the sake of a few authorial chuckles at your story's (and your readers') expense?

7. Especially at first, don't talk about the curse yourself, in narrative summary. Show it in action and dialogue, in scenes. As the characters discern what odd thing is going on, the reader will be finding out along with them. And the characters provide a solid anchor (if you don't make them unbelieving fools). The reader will tend to accept what they accept, if you've established them as credible people the reader is willing to identify with.

Dialogue is more believable than summary. We overhear it. We assume the characters believe and mean what they're saying, unless they're visibly foolish or obviously lying. The dialogue is shown (heard), not told about in summary, and therefore has greater immediacy and impact. We may not be inclined to credit what the author claims (until we've seen it for ourselves), but we'll believe the characters if they've been made credible as people to begin with.

8. Don't let the curse either take over, rendering the whole story weird and uninvolving, or become commonplace. If you've got a magical character, don't have him or her casting spells every few pages, or the reader will find it too hard to make contact with the reality the fiction presents. A story where literally anything can happen is a story where nothing makes sense. It has no internal coherence, no rules, no dramatic tension. If anything can happen, it all happens for no particular reason and leads to no particular result. No build. No momentum.

Similarly, an all-powerful character, one who can do anything he or she chooses, kills drama and suspense. That's the trouble the original creators of Superman ran into—nothing was a real challenge, the way Superman's character and powers had been defined. Voila: Kryptonite!

If the extraordinary character is somebody other than the protagonist (usually a good choice: remember what I said about bridge characters, back in Chapter 3), keep that character offstage most of the time and center attention on the more credible protagonist. That's why Tolkien kills off Gandalf fairly early in the first book of the trilogy and doesn't resurrect him for several hundred pages. He wanted to focus on the hobbits, who have to make hard choices, not on a wizard whojust has to wave a wand and speak some words to get out of trouble. And he shows the limits on Gandalf's power throughout, to bring out the wizard's human qualities and counterbalance the magical ones.

Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99 percent of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.

Michael McDowell has a remarkable multi-volume novel titled Blackwater. It's an account of the doings of a fairly ordinary southern family, except that the protagonist turns, every now and again, into something apparently indistinguishable from the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The rest of the time, she's an interesting but by no means remarkable housewife. Sometimes, just once in a while, she transforms and eats people who annoy her. That gives, as you might well imagine, heightened drama to arguments with her in-laws and makes readers take a particular interest in her children's adolescent difficulties.

If you've got a monster, don't trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you imagine, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see. The reality will tend to be a letdown, simply because it's a determinate object and no longer The Unknown.

Waiting to find out builds suspense, drama. Actually finding out should be reserved to a climax, a set-piece. Afterward, if the story continues beyond that first face-to-face revelation, you'll need some new source of drama because the monster won't be quite so scary anymore.

Doyle knew this in The Hound of the Baskervilles: he let the reader hear the hound's howling but didn't give more than a glimpse or a hint until the very end. He avoided undercutting his monster, too. The hound isn't supernatural, but it's still quite capable of tearing somebody's throat out. It's not the same threat as was feared, but it's a legitimate threat all the same. Remember what I said about twists, back in Chapter 5? That applies here, too. Your twist (if you use one) must satisfy and improve upon what it substitutes for, not just change it to something else. That's anticlimax, letdown, disappointment.

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