What The X-Files Taught Me About Writing Scary Stories

I liked this post a lot — he breaks down the typical X Files episodes into acts, describing the events that almost certainly will happen each time. I had waves of happy nostalgia as I read through. However, the later comments left me hanging (a bit). I agree that “If the leads aren’t compelling we won’t mind if the monsters feed on them.” But how to create such characters? That seems to be the rub, and I’m not sure that merely supplying character details (religion, views on stem cell research) is the answer. Maybe there is a version of the act based progression, but for character rather than plot, something that also develops over the course of each episode…
(via Burlesque Press)

Drew Chial

1. Grown Man with Action FiguresThe X-Files defined dramatic science fiction in the 90s. It inspired fans to write spooky stories of their own. Rumor has it, the show is returning for a limited run. Mulder and Scully will wave their flashlights across our TV screens one last time.

I wanted to share what the show taught me about plot structure, characterization, and planting scares in an audience’s imagination.

How Mulder and Scully Taught Me to Write My Own Scary Stories

Modern TV shows are tailored for binge watching. They have serial story lines to keep us streaming all weekend. They tease mysteries, love triangles, and thematic shifts that will carry into future seasons. Shows no longer use the ‘TO BE CONTINUED’ caption because it would be redundant.

Before J.J. Abrams gave the Ted Talk where he said, “Mystery is the catalyst for the imagination,” The X-Files was answering questions with questions. Would Mulder discover…

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One thought on “What The X-Files Taught Me About Writing Scary Stories

  1. Creating a compelling character is the trick — and it’s easier said than done. But, there ARE concrete tools that can help a writer demystify the process of doing so. If you study the Beyond Structure techniques of David Freeman (not a paid endorsement, by the way — I’m merely a devotee of his principles), you learn that all fictional characters are just a collocation of four or five consistent traits that govern everything they say and do. So, if you pair uncommon or incongruous traits together — like the way 24’s Jack Bauer is both PATRIOTIC (a quality consistent with “Boy Scouts” like Luke Skywalker/Cyclops) and DEFIANT (characteristic of antiheroes like Han Solo/Wolverine) — you are on your way toward hitting upon a combination we’ve never quite seen before (Jack is a deceptively complex hero, hence the reason we still care about his adventures fourteen years after 24 first premiered). DETAILS, which are specific (e.g. Jack Bauer is former military and LAPD) are manifestations of TRAITS, which are broader in nature yet still offer a defined set of parameters that account for beliefs/actions/worldviews/skills (Jack is TACTICAL/COMBAT PROFICIENT, which covers any relevant experience/training he might have in his backstory).

    One of those five traits is typically an “emotional deficiency” (Jack Bauer has a DEATH WISH; Fox Mulder is inconsolably GRIEF-STRICKEN), and, with that in mind, a writer makes sure the plot of every story forces the hero in some way (directly or indirectly) to confront that emotionally guarded facet of himself. My point is, there ARE methodical applications for creating consistent, dynamic, original characters — it doesn’t have to be some intuitive act of alchemy, despite the fact that so few writing courses/manuals seem to address the subject in any codified way. I deconstruct characters regularly on my blog; I’m endlessly fascinated by what makes a good character tick.

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