Storyville: Writing a Story or Novel Based on One Emotion

So today, what I wanted to talk about was how to create based on a single emotion (or theme). When writing a short story, or novel, quite often there will be a theme that runs through everything you’re doing, one main emotion that helps to build the atmosphere, tension, conflict and resolution. Let’s talk about how you can do that, and what that might look like. Let me talk a bit about my process.

When I sit down to write a short story or novel there are usually a few things that are front of mind for me:

1. Is this for a themed anthology or call? (What are the rules and guidelines?)
2. What genre or genres is this for? (Or what do I want to explore?)
3. First or third person? (One is more intimate, one more authoritative.)
4. Past or present tense? (One just happened, one is happening now.)
5. If there is no limitation, what am I feeling lately? What news, ideas, weirdness?

THEME

Obviously, let’s start with the situations that are the most limiting. Whether I’ve been invited into an anthology or magazine privately, or there is an open call or window closing, if there are rules and concepts already in play, you have to honor those. I’m currently working on a few different stories for anthologies. It helps me to start with those rules—exploring the idea of identity, the sensation of wonder and curiosity, something broad and seasonal like Halloween, road trips and lost highways, the feeling of being alienated, a tribute anthology to a rock band, dark stories with a religious tint, seven deadly sins, etc.

Whatever hangs over you, haunts you, torments you, inspires you, gets you hot and bothered, or shines a ray of hope into your otherwise dismal existence—FEEL IT.

That’s a wide range of topics there, some leaning into an emotion already, others pretty broad. If we look at the idea of wonder and curiosity, that’s a good place to start. I’ve been writing more magical realism lately, with bits of dark fantasy, science fiction, horror, and neo-noir sprinkled in. I just finished the story for an invite today, and the title is “Hiraeth.” I’ve been exploring weird words lately, and this is one of those examples. So we already have an idea of curiosity and wonder, how does this title play into that?

The definition of hiraeth is “a homesickness for a place to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” So, there’s a lot going on there, right? I knew right away that I wanted to find the intersection between curiosity and wonder and that nostalgia and longing. It helped me to push the narrative in some weird directions—to places and realities for my protagonist, that in hindsight, may or may not have existed. I was able to write with those emotions in mind the entire time—what did he want, what did he need, what is he missing, or lacking, and how has his past shaped his future? And if that’s a future he wants to change, how might he do that? And when I think curiosity and wonder I think magic and the supernatural—so there were a number of mythical creatures that popped up in passing, hiding in the shadows, a strange golden fruit with vines and thorns that would turn your hand black, and what if that longing, that hole inside became literal?

So I started with the emotions that were presented to me, and expanded them, chasing genres and other emotions that intrigued me.

The other story I recently wrote, “Saudade,” started with the idea of prisms, and the multiple identities we all carry with us—dark and light, day and night, hope and fear. In some ways it’s a similar emotion to hiraeth. Saudade means “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves,” but for me, in this instance, the prism, the refracting sent me in another direction.

I’ve written a few stories, two I think, that use first person plural—we. “Asking for Forgiveness” is one, and “Saudade” is the second. I wanted to deal with the voices we all carry inside us—sometimes our parents, sometimes our teachers, sometimes our friends, right? Or maybe it’s our own inner demons sabotaging us, or inner angels pushing us forward, lifting us up? I kept getting caught on the idea of the trinity—not just father, son, holy spirit but body, mind, and soul; id, ego, and superego. How might that manifest?

The other idea that was at play for me was the idea of evolution. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept, but the process seems so slow—millions of years! How might we speed that up? I also believe in reincarnation, so as I wrote the story I started to find this loop, which I decided to chase.

GENRE

When you think about genres, you should think of your favorites, the stories and novels you’ve recently read, the ones that really stuck with you, really left an impression, and then try to take it someplace new. I’ve been doing that a lot lately with horror—trying to write it without actually killing anyone, without showing excessive gore. There was a moment in “Saudade” where I worked really hard to NOT show the violence that was going down, the fate our hero was trying to avoid. It was interesting. How do you show the violence of a sword on flesh without all of that gore? Can you show marks on somebody’s arms that are an echo of what happened in the past (and was going to happen again) as a warning? And when it comes anyway, that fated violence, what happens when you turn the camera away—what happens in the silence, the moments right before and after, and what are the thoughts that fill in those little gaps? It was an interesting experience. And that’s how I’ve tried to subvert horror lately. My magical realism has been more mainstream, even as I tried to make it weird—in the case of “Hiraeth,” it was all about the structure. It took some strange turns for sure.

Themed anthologies. Working in genre. What next?

POV/TENSE

The little decisions like present or past, first or third (or as Stephen Graham Jones prefers, as he told my class last night, always SECOND person for him, at least in the rough drafts) those typically don’t mean a lot to me. I just follow what feels right. I started writing “Hiraeth” in present, changed it to past. Makes sense right, longing for a past? Should feel like it’s already over, too late, right? In the rearview mirror. I tend to write first person because I like the intimacy. With “Saudade” it HAD to be that way to be inside the protagonist’s mind, as the multiple personalities fought to be heard. In “Hiraeth” it felt like third, that little bit of distance necessary to keep that intimacy a bit farther away, more isolation, more detachment, less warmth.

LIMITATIONS

But what about when you have no rules, no deadline, just wide open, the world your oyster, what then? Sometimes it cripples me, but usually, I just start paying attention and looking around. Not so much for plot, since I don’t really plot, but ideas, emotions, culture, news, etc. We’re talking about a single emotion here today, a single theme, and that’s what I’m getting at. Both stories I’ve already mentioned do that. Same with all of my novels— Transubstantiate (about change), Disintegration (duh, disintegrating), and Breaker (breaking a cycle of abuse, and the physical act of fighting). Quite often it’s that way with my stories, some of these titles are easy to figure out, at least the tip of the iceberg, the overriding emotion: “Victimized,” “Transmogrify,” “Rapture,” “Repent,” “Stillness,” and others. How do you get started? Here are some ideas.

What keeps you up at night? What’s on your mind? What is the worst thing that could happen with that emotion, that situation? Chase that rabbit down the hole.

What emotions are you feeling lately? What’s the opposite of that emotion? How might a hero handle it? A coward? A witch? A lost child?

My novel Disintegration was really one long descent into madness, for me. It came out of my own struggles from many years ago with alcohol, drugs, and apathy. It was me chasing that rabbit much farther down the hole than I went in real life (thank God) pulling in echoes of what I’d seen—underground sex clubs, a friend dying of a heroin overdose, women sneaking into my apartment in the dead of night, cops beating people in the street, and all the lost nights I howled at the moon, as I tried to kill myself, in a number of ways, only to wake up the next day ready to do it all again. I never killed anyone, though. That’s where I got off the ride. But the loss, the emotion, the solitude, the disintegration—all related emotions, all places I had been. I just summoned them back up to the surface, rode them hard and put them away wet. It was intense. The emotions? When I finished the book, I broke down crying, sobbing, thinking I might vomit. It was me, and it wasn’t me. I had lost a bit of myself in writing that book—but maybe those parts? Maybe it was okay to let them go.

Whatever you’re into right now, feeling today, whatever hangs over you, haunts you, torments you, inspires you, gets you hot and bothered, or shines a ray of hope into your otherwise dismal existence. FEEL IT. And then put it on the page. Take that one emotion, and paint the canvas with it. See where it takes you. You might be surprised. Then again, it might be like seeing an old friend.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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