Columns > Published on August 18th, 2023

Using Peace, Quiet, and Introspection to Intensify Your Writing

I want to talk to you about the concept of using peace, quiet, and introspection to add some intensity to your writing. While your story can certainly be an insane sprint for the finish line (such as in my 1,501-word story, “Undone” that’s ONE SENTENCE) or a continuous barrage of horrifying elements, never letting up, let’s look at the ways that taking a break from the action, from the darkness, from the fast-pace unfurling of your story can actually make those moments stronger.

SETUP

When you start your story, yes, I want you to drop us en media res, into the middle of things. I want you to use the inciting incident to hook us and help us to understand how important this moment is, and how things have changed (forever). But after that initial slap in the face, that hook, that boot drop, why not back off a touch as you build your world, as you lay out that exposition, and help us care about your characters?

You see it in so many horror movies—here is the house, here is the family, here are the friends off to the cabin in the woods. And why do we do this? So you can understand the rules—where are we, when are we, why are we—and what is going on. Russia or Mars, 2024 or 1800, seeking revenge or running for our lives, as the external and internal conflicts unfold. Set your baseline, show us how it all works, what a normal day looks like. Show us your cast, and how normal (or abnormal) they are, and then get us to care. Are they in trouble, are they filled with wonder and magic, are they good guys or bad guys, and what does this tip of the iceberg hint at?

AFTER SOMETHING INTENSE

When there is a major development in a story, an intense scene, what should you do next? This is a great moment to take a breath, to allow the audience to calm down and relax, to stop being suspicious. And at the same time, it gives your protagonist/s, and the secondary characters time to do something else. Just killed a werewolf, what now? You reload, you bandage up your wounds, you bolt the door, and you talk about how that wasn’t just any beast outside—that was your wife, your father, your neighbor. You reveal character in how people handle the violence, the horror, the threat. Are they capable and heroic or are they prey, something that rolls over and dies? How does that action sustain? How might they be vulnerable in these quiet moments? That’s how you get to the depth in your characters, that’s how you get us to care.

It’s a quiet moment with Leon as he sits at his kitchen table, drinking a glass of milk (The Professional). It’s a mother at the living room fireplace with a journal in her hands, ready to toss it in the fire, contemplating her losses, as she prepares for what might come next (Hereditary). It’s a man sitting on the floor, after having killed a bad person, missing his cat, the window open, so lost that he takes a handful of her dry, crunchy food, shoving it in his mouth (Disintegration). It’s the pie-eating scene in A Ghost Story. It’s the holy ending of A Dark Song.

INTERNAL CONFLICT

After that initial slap in the face, that hook, that boot drop, why not back off a touch as you build your world, as you lay out that exposition, and help us care about your characters?

So often the internal conflict is the part of a story that new or improving writers screw up. They get the werewolves and the aliens and the zombies and the demons—they understand the lore and the rules and the threat at hand. But they forget who their protagonist is, and what they want (beyond survival) and how that feels. This is also how you get us to care, to cry, to feel.

I think of the ending of the movie Arrival, and the mother in that story, the twist that changes everything for the audience watching—I bawl my eyes out every time. I think about Rango out in the desert wandering across the highway after he fails that small town, on his own epic journey of discovery—trying to be the hero, when he’s just a simple lizard at heart, full of so much bravado and machismo. Love that film. I think about my unnamed protagonist in Disintegration at the end of his story, the last scene, and how he wants to find a place in this world, hopes that there is still room in it for him, as he walks away from everyone, and everything he loves, knowing it’s the right decision, but suffering nonetheless.

What does your protagonist want, what do they need? If they want to be loved, then you have two main choices—give them that love, or do NOT give it to them. That may be the difference between a touching, haunting horror story where we feel gratitude at the end result vs. a bleak, horrifying thriller where all is lost and we shake our fists at the sky.

ISOLATION

It’s not just quiet, finding peace, it’s taking your character away from EVERYONE ELSE, and really studying them—their actions, their movements, their face, their body, and all of their internal thoughts and emotion. Put them in the shower, in bed, in an alley—take them out into a cornfield with a bottle of bourbon, shove them in a cave as the ice storm rages around them. These are great little moments to really get to know your protagonist, to understand them, and to help the audience to grasp what they are going through (good and bad) on this epic journey.

ALGORITHM

It’s a balancing act, these stories we write—up and down, left and right, big moments and quiet isolation. Think of it as a ten course meal—spicy, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Conjure up a colorful tapestry with several themes, many different images, and a few important threads running through it all, connecting it, holding it together. And whether your story is as simple as A + B = C or as complicated as 1A-F + 2A-F + 3A-F = X, it’s important for you to find the rhythm, the formula, the structure, and the outcome that has the most impact.

IN CONCLUSION

Whatever your genre, find a way to insert some peace, quiet, and introspection into your stories and novels. Those moments may end up being some of the most revealing and powerful in the entire tale. Let us catch our breath, show us some depth of character, remind us what your characters need and want, let them get introspective, and then figure out the formula for YOUR voice and story—creating something truly special, that only you can create.

Get Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was 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 Lit Reactor 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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