Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Play 'Em Like a Drum

If you read my LJ or you followed the link I posted on G+ yesterday, you know that I went on a haunted walking tour on Sunday.  If you haven't already read it, you might want to, because this post assumes you've already read that one.

When I wasn't getting increasingly nervous about how creepy this daylight tour was getting, I was noting ways that the tour guide used various storytelling techniques.  I thought I'd share them with the five of you reading this, because it hammers home why you should use these techniques far better than anyone blathering at you about the right way to write.

Establish your credentials
Our tour guide introduced himself, listed his areas of expertise, and then proved he knew what he was talking about.  We started with names, years, actual historical events we'd all heard of.  He grounded us in facts before introducing the elements that would have the skeptics in the audience raising an eyebrow.  We trusted him, because he'd been telling us the truth so far, and so we were willing to later suspend our disbelief.

In writing, especially speculative fiction, it's important to show the reader early on that you know what you're talking about.  The world should be grounded in reality, where some of the rules still apply.  Show that you know what you're talking about in everything but where disbelief needs suspension, and the reader will follow.

Build up to it
The tour didn't start with stories of hauntings and creepy ghosts.  We learned history, heard about various sightings, learned the lingo.  The stories got gradually more creepy and menacing, until we began to believe that we were one ghost's whim away from hearing a whisper just outside our hearing, feeling a hand brushing through our hair.  Had the tour guide started with ghost stories on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I would've been rolling my eyes.  Instead, he moved us closer and closer to the sense of menace and danger, gradually bringing us closer to where the strongest menace lay.

No matter what you're trying to evoke, you can't just toss it at a reader.  You have to craft it, build it, then release it when you have your foundation set down.  Whether it's emotions, a sense of satisfaction, or anything else, if you want your reader to feel it, you need to spend time building it up.

Set the tone
As I've mentioned several times now, this walking tour was during the daylight hours, and it's difficult to feel a sense of menace when the sun is out.  The tour guide still had several things at his disposal, though.  The first was an old inn that's been rebuilt after a fire, and is now office spaces.  The door creaked like something out of an old horror movie when it opened, which evoked a burst of nervous laughter.  Then we walked through the hallway, looking for signs of the little girl who supposedly haunts it.  We went to a cemetery, and there, those of us who went to sit it out because cemeteries creep us out were treated to a bonus ghost story, of the one who followed our tour guide home.  From there, we headed to an old jailhouse, which was so closed up in the back that it allowed no natural light through.  The two places for sitting, after all that walking and standing, were in the deepest, darkest part, and was right where two ghosts were said to originate.  When the flashlights went out, I actually whimpered aloud.

You can have a horror novel set in sunny California.  You can have a dystopia set in Disney Land.  But you have to evoke the tone of what you're writing by what you surround it with.  Choose what surrounds your story carefully, and your setting, word choice and tone will tell most of the story for you.

Distract them
The part of the tour that stays with me the most is the voice recording, the ghost answering, "Are you going to follow us home?" with a whispered, "Yes, I want to."  I listened to it several times, and quite willingly.  Had the tour guide thrust a recording next to me and said it was a ghost's whisper, I would've shoved it away and cut him a wide berth.  He didn't do that.  He asked us what we thought it sounded like, and we all listened raptly, letting those hissing syllables sink in.  We listened several times, confirming what we thought we heard, or trying to hear something different.  It wasn't a question of listening or not.  It was a question of what we heard, not whether we heard it.

If you've ever covered for your terrible exposition by slipping plot points into dialogue, you've already done this.  Or, if you've introduced a character you don't think anyone will like as being opposed to the person you know they'll hate, you've done it.  Anytime you cloak something that won't hold the reader in a way that tweaks it, turns it into something they will like, you've used it.

And if you haven't, you should think about it.

I'm sure there were more ways our tour guide used the storyteller's craft, but these were the most transparent, and the most effective.  How do you use any of these techniques?  Or, do you have one you would add?

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