A Stir of Echoes is a 1999 supernatural thriller directed by David Koepp. It’s based on one of my favorite Richard Matheson novels (in fact, one of my all-time favorite novels). In the film, protagonist Tom Witzky is hypnotized by his sister-in-law, who gives him the post-hypnotic suggestion: “Your mind will be completely open, like an open door, open to receive everything around you.” This suggestion turns out to be way too open-ended.
In one scene, Tom switches on a baby monitor at his son Jake’s bedside. This is a metaphor for being open and tuned into activity “upstairs,” or on “the other side.” Tom’s psychic abilities have been switched on artificially. But his son comes by them naturally.
Jake “shines” like Danny Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. In fact, one scene in which Jake and his mother wander into a cemetery during a police officer’s funeral, Neil the cop follows them and discusses Jake’s psychic abilities much like Dick Hallorann in King’s 1977 novel. I can’t recall if the cemetery scene is derived from Matheson’s 1958 novel, but if it is, Matheson’s version is the original. Like Hallorann, Neil says of Jake, “Boy’s got the x-ray eyes. … Daddy?” Maggie affirms his perceptions.
Jake sees and knows things psychically and has an “imaginary friend,” Samantha—a departed spirit who haunts him because he can perceive her. This spirit relationship is like Danny Torrance’s “Tony,” who’s actually a mediumistic spirit guide. After Tom encounters a vision of Samantha, Jake tells him, “You’re awake now, Daddy. Don’t be afraid of it, Daddy.”
With another child on the way, Tom faces giving up his dream of becoming a rock star. Yet he laments that he doesn’t want to be ordinary. When Lisa hypnotizes him the second time, he receives the command to DIG. He’s not sure what it means, but he tears up the backyard and the house trying to follow through. When Maggie challenges him, he tells her, “This is the most important thing that’s ever happened to me. The most important thing I’ve ever done.”
His digging, searching for the truth, leads him to the answer he’s been seeking. It dovetails with the most important thing Samantha needs: justice for the crimes that caused her death.
This one’s got the supernatural, psychic and mediumistic abilities, and crime. My favorite combination. If you haven’t seen A Stir of Echoes, I highly recommend it. But be sure to read the book first!
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Every scene needs conflict. And every scene must “turn.” Here’s some insight about the turning point, a crucial ingredient of every scene.
What’s a Scene?
A scene is a discrete story segment in which your characters engage in conflict and take significant actions that you portray memorably as if the events were happening in real time. Robert McKee in his seminal STORY recommends that every scene be a story event. And every scene must “turn.”
What’s at Stake for Your Character?
A scene is like a story in miniature: it has a beginning, middle, and end. “No matter locations or length,” says McKee, “a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.”
A scene begins with a problem or goal that’s based on some value at stake in your character’s life at the moment. What’s at stake? Love? Truth? Safety? Honor? Justice? Meaningfulness? Action genres turn on values such as freedom/slavery or justice/injustice. Educational stories turn on interior values such as self-awareness/self-deception or life as meaningful/meaningless.
In chapter 1 of THE SIXTH SEED, my protagonist Tom Furst’s freedom is at stake, both personal and financial.
Examine each of your scenes and identify what’s at stake for your character.
What’s Your Character’s Objective?
Tom’s goal is based on a desire to change the current state of his freedom.
In each scene your character pursues an immediate, short-term desire. This scene goal must be sub-goal of his or her greater story objective. In a scene, your character goes after this scene goal by enduring conflict or opposition to make a decision or take a specific action.
The scene portrays this push and pull. The process is built on beats, individual units of action and reaction. Your character says, “Stop doing that.” The opposition says, “I won’t.” Beat by beat, this dance of behaviors escalates progressively. The last beat must end with a turning point.
Deliver the Unexpected
In this process of mounting action/reaction between your characters, their conflict produces a big reaction that your character failed to anticipate. McKee explains that:
The effect is to crack open the gap between expectation and result, turning his outer fortunes, inner life, or both from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive in terms of values the audience understands are at risk.
Your character asks, “Why won’t you stop doing that? It’s hurting me.” The scene antagonist replies, “Because your best friend likes what I’m doing. And I’m in love with him.” BAM!
In this way, a scene creates change in a minor yet significant way. So how do you set this up?
Polarity Must Change
Once you’ve highlighted the core issue, state the charge of that value at the start of the scene: positive or negative.
For example, with Tom Furst in THE SIXTH SEED, the value of freedom at the start of chapter 1 is negative. He’s between a rock and a hard place and needs to increase his freedom to gain some financial breathing room. His goal is to undergo a vasectomy (a procedure so intense you have to read it for yourself!), a small step in gaining that freedom back—or so he thinks.
Your characters begin the scene with two things: the current charge (+/-) of their core value at stake, and their immediate goal. Then, they:
- Encounter the opposition (who also has a goal and value of their own)
- Engage in conflict (exchange escalating behavior beats)
- Finally experience an outcome
This outcome is the turning point of the scene—the moment where your character’s value changes polarity.
The effects of turning points, according to McKee, include: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction. The turning point provides new information and a goal for the next scene.
At the end of the scene, what is the state of your POV character’s value? Is it positive, negative, or both? Compare the charge at the beginning and the end. If the value doesn’t change polarity, then why is the scene is in your narrative? McKee points out:
If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful has happened; it is a nonevent. If a scene is not a true event, cut it. If the scene is only there for exposition, it needs more justification. Every scene must turn.
How to Make Your Scenes Turn
Craft your scenes using the following process:
- Begin with a value at stake in your character’s life. Base a scene goal on that value. (You could also start with the goal and discover the value at stake.)
- Determine the motivation and goal of your scene’s opposition. (Your antagonistic force cannot exist merely to give your character an ass-pain.)
- Over the course of the scene, challenge and threaten the state of that value through conflict between your character and the opposition. Beats should escalate logically and progressively (not leap a chasm from rationality to absurdity or from laxity to high tension).
- Determine the final beat that is the turning point, the reaction that bears the fruit of surprise, increased curiosity, insight, or new direction.
- Evaluate whether the beat process and turning point have changed the polarity of your character’s value. If not, keep working.
- What is the outcome of the turning point—the surprise, curiosity, insight, or new direction? This is the starting point for your next scene in this plot line.
Note: If you’re a pre-plotter or outliner, you might find it useful to map the value/goal/turning point/outcome for each scene to ensure that your scenes are linked logically in a greater chain of cause-and-effect over the course of the narrative. Just as beats escalate to a turning point in each scene, so do scenes escalate to major turning points or reversals in the broader narrative.
Test this process by analyzing scenes from well-written books. Apply the process to your own scenes. If you find it helpful, I’d love to hear from you. Please like this post and subscribe. And spread the word!
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I recently had a chance to interview writer Reed Alexander. He lives in upstate New York, where he’s become intimately familiar with the capital region. “Even since I was a scrappy teenager,” he says, “I spent a large portion of my childhood either in big cities or deep forest.” He holds a deep and separate love for both where, he admits he was “a bit of a wild animal” that may or may not have something to do with his love of horror.
Reed is a horror writer and critic, and a bit of a fanatic about the genre in general. “Nothing really entertains me quite as much as horror does. It is possible that the legends of both the deep forest and urban decay drove my curiosity for the terrifying. Both are equally and naturally scary places in their own right.”
When did you first start writing? Did you ever think it would lead you to where you are today?
I was twelve. I use to write RIFTS fan fic and didn’t think much of it at the time. As a matter of fact, I was so deeply ADHD and poorly disciplined in the English language, I seldom finished any writing until I was in my early twenties.
I’m still learning new things about the English language today at 38. It’s been a long, strange journey. I should mention I was illiterate until the fifth grade. I wasn’t a strong writer till about the age of 25, and I never considered it possible to have a career in writing. And yet, I felt compelled to. I couldn’t stop. I had stories and I needed to tell them. Even if no one would listen.
What are you currently working on? Do you have a release date, and where will it be available for purchase?
What I’m working on right now is a joint effort between me and a gentleman named James Leif. He doesn’t do interviews, otherwise I’d send him your way. Admittedly, he’s a bit of an enigma to me. Right now he’s studying a structure recently discovered among the Hobbit People (Flores Man) of Flores, Indonesia.
I do have two books coming out, though. The first is The Flagellant, which drops around the end of April. The other, In the Shadow of the Mountain, will be released next month. I’ve also recently accepted a contract to be in an anthology of short stories called Sorrow. My short is titled “Cold.”
What else have you published so far?
So far, I have a few shorts published in Art Post Magazine. The first story, “Inside,” was the featured story of their June edition. (https://artpostmag.com/product/june-2018-artpost-magazine-physical/)
The second is titled “Not In My Country,” which was accepted for their October Horror anthology. (https://artpostmag.com/product/october-2018-artpost-magazine/)
Oddly, the first thing I wrote, while really violent, wasn’t horror. It was about an anti-hero with serious reality-bending super powers called “Bend or Break.” (https://www.pagepublishing.com/books/?book=bend-or-break)
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Focus. I have serious ADHD. I’m always working on five thing at a time.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Depends on the book. The first thing I wrote took months to finish and years to perfect. The most recent novella I wrote took only about two weeks to write and about a month to perfect.
A common misconception about authors is that they are socially inept. Does that hold true for you?
I am about as socially awkward as they come. I hate being around people. I don’t like social situations. I can’t stand the mall, I can’t stand bars, I can’t stand clubs… this is basically going to turn into a list of places filled with people that I don’t like.
Now, I can socialize and, as a matter of fact, I find I do it well. I just hate to.
What makes the horror genre so special to you?
I don’t know. Life is pretty boring really. I guess I wish it was actually filled with ghosts and monsters and shit. Writing is about escapism. Why I choose to escape into the terrifying? Not sure. I just find it more interesting than fantasy or action. I think it’s the nature of the conflict. Something feels more human about the struggle inherent to horror.
What’s your process for getting from idea or situation to an actual plot that you can outline (if you outline)?
I don’t outline. I usually get an idea and then I target an outcome. It feels like the journey between point A and B is just a natural progression.
So how do I get an idea? Several different ways. I either have a dream—no shit—I have a nightmare that has a full-blown plot, start to finish, and I write that, or something pisses me off. When something pisses me off, I feel the need to address it in some way. The Flagellant, for instance. That story is about how much I hate the way victims are commonly written in horror movies. Far too often, they’re written as either generally obnoxious debauchees at best, or absolute insufferable assholes at worst. There’s no relating to them and half the damn time you’re rooting for them to get killed. I wanted to write a story about trying to humanize said insufferable assholes.
If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be, and why?
The Flagellant. I wrote it almost twelve years ago, and I’ve improved so much since then. It took three editors almost two months to clean it up. It was embarrassing. I’d want to rewrite it as the writer I am now to see what I could do with it.
Do you prefer writing short stories, novellas, or novels?
The pen COMMANDS ME! I joke, of course, but I really don’t know what I’m writing until I’m in the thick of it. There’s no real preference. I feel like some stories just need to run longer than others.
Do you have a writer’s website or Facebook page where readers can follow you? Twitter?
Of course. My reviews are on Horror.Media, and Madnessheart.press.
Samples of my writing are on my Facebook page and occasionally on Twitter but also my reviews, so check out the Notes on my Facebook page:
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Jake Patrin has seen his share of trouble.
When he turned thirty-five, he had the year from Hell with a capital H. His wife divorced him and he lost a good job driving truck in King City, California. Worse, a collision with a Mack truck one night landed him in the hospital for three months and left him in constant pain, controlled by serious doses of Oxycontin, which became his master. It took him a year to kick the narcotic but he now faces a daily struggle to leave the addiction behind.
That’s why he’s working as caretaker at Sherman Ranch, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Living in the middle of nowhere, he hopes to stay clean and sober. Weekly trips to Santa Fe, or a desperate phone call, hook him up with a middle-aged men’s Alcoholics Anonymous group that help keep him sane. His sponsor is an old Native American, John White Horse, who’s fought his own good fight for forty years. John takes no bullshit. He’s a good friend and support.
Groups come and go, renting the place for their special purposes. Some have really strange demands—take out all the TVs, or hide the movie collections. Some bring truckloads of horses. Some simply find their way to the hot tub and never leave.
Jake is prepared for the group of fancy-schmancy lawyers renting the ranch for a week in March, despite the boxes of alcohol they bring in. He thinks he can ignore this. He hopes he can.
He’d better. The one thing he can control is his own sobriety. But as he soon discovers, everything else this week is totally out of his hands.
|Teo Haroun and the other lawyers in his firm look forward to the retreat at the Sherman Ranch in northern New Mexico. The boss has laid down some rules—no phones, no computers, no communication with the outside world—that make them uneasy. But the corporate team-building exercises are necessary for this firm to survive its inner sniping and turmoil—and to protect the secrets they hold.
Inez Suela and thirty other Mexicans have paid a coyote hundreds of pesos to take them across the border into the United States, where they hope to make a better life. The crowded truck heads north into New Mexico to meet their local driver, the occupants unaware that a freak March snowstorm is waiting in its path.
Jake Patrin, the caretaker of the Ranch, fights demons of his own as he struggles daily with addiction. Working far from the city on the lonely Ranch, hosting those who rent the facility, is his protection and solace. But he’s about to lose the only peace he’s been able to grasp.
Davi Pilar needs to make some fast money to appease a couple of St. Louis loan sharks, so he agrees to pick up a truckload of illegals and take them to St. Louis. He drives to New Mexico, not knowing that Inez, the woman who rejected him years before, is one of those on that truck.
The intersection of these people, the collision of their cultures, the revelation of their secrets—all these things lead to violence, death, and even redemption in their New Mexico ENCOUNTER.
For more information, go to alanalorens.com. You can find ENCOUNTER in ebook and print formats at Amazon.com and Three Fates Press.
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Prepare to be ferried to an unfamiliar realm on the bony back of despair.
Author Dustin LaValley takes us down face first with rapid-fire flash fiction in the form of ODDS AND ENDS: AN ASSORTMENT OF SORTS. Already associated with the dark and bizarre, LaValley expands his repertoire to experiment with form and literary introspection.
These harrowing meditations on the nature of the world—and the very purpose of humanity—not only provide chills, but strangely the effect of this read is vastly disproportionate to its length, leaving us with scars to contemplate for a long time to come.
Watch the book trailer here:
Guns, Girls, and Tattoos: A Book Trailer for ODDS AND ENDS
Look for ODDS AND ENDS, due out this month, from Raw Dog Screaming Press.
“Extraordinary. Hauntingly poignant.”
–Thomas Ligotti, author of My Work Is Not Yet Done
Connect with Dustin LaValley:
On Facebook: Dustin LaValley, Author
Dust, In the Valley: http://dustinthevalley.tumblr.com/
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/dustinlavalley
Artwork by Jody Rae Adams.
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February 1, 2013
A terrific review of MIRAGES, edited by Trent Zelazny. My “Poor Old Soul” is in there, along with stories by Joe R. Lansdale, Tom Piccirilli, and Kealan Patrick Burke. Have you gotten your copy yet?
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Author friend Rose Vanden Eynden tagged me in her blog post today. It’s a fun game, and here are the rules:
- Go to page 77 of your current work in progress.
- Scroll down 7 lines.
- Paste the next 7 sentences into your blog.
- Then tag 7 more authors to carry forward the 777 game. Add their links, and remember to link to the person who tagged you… (Also, let everyone know.)
From page 77 of DEATH PERCEPTION:
Antogonist Cecil Grinold puts protagonist Kennet Singleton to the test, to see if the young man really can discern cause of death by toasting marshmallows over the cremated remains of the deceased. But Grinold is up to no good, of course.
“I was just thinking of a little experiment.” Yes, why not find out whether my young employee is telling the truth or inventing tall tales? Knowing that his psychic “gift” was impossible, Cecil gloated about the time when he would fire Kennet for good. Hopefully, soon.
“Yes, Kennet. Are the marshmallows still here?”
“Unless you threw them away.”
“I should have, but I didn’t. Bring them out.”
“I hope there’s no problem . . . ”
“Relax. Just get the marshmallows.” Dummy.
Okay, so I posted a few more than 7 sentences, but it was a good breaking point. You can learn more about DEATH PERCEPTION here.
Rose’s links are at the beginning of this post, and here are links to 7 of my friends’ blogs. Check them out. Read their stuff. Support writers!
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