GUEST POST: On Trying Too Hard

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On Trying Too Hard
by Dr. Michael R. Collings

All literature depends to one degree or another on atmosphere—on tone, mood, feeling, ambience. It underlies the often more easily recognizable elements of characterization, plot, landscape, and action, and often—as in the case of such classic novels as Wuthering Heights—becomes strong enough to act almost as a character itself.

Horror may depend upon it more fully than other genres, however, since the feeling of dread or terror or fear elicited in readers, the frisson that emerges as a physical manifestation of something essentially unreal—the content of the printed page—often supersedes other elements of storytelling, as in some of H.P. Lovecraft's tales, where the atmosphere is the story.

That dependence may itself become a danger. Frequently, horror writers work too hard to develop a tone, a feeling, and seem to believe that simply dropping more words into a passage will increase the reader's physiological responses. If one is writing a Lovecraftian tale, then, of course (the argument seems to go) the more often eldritch appears, or the more references to weird angles and other dimensions, the scarier the story will be.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.

The other day, while reading a collection of short horror fiction, intending to review the book (which on the whole was quite well done), I came across a paragraph that stopped me cold. Not because it enhanced the sense of the alien but because it—quite literally—overwhelmed me with words. The purpose was, I think, to create atmosphere. The effect was to stall the story and focus on ultimately irrelevant details.

The passage begins: "[She] drew in her arms and sat up in the sand. She felt its grit against the curve of her bare back." Not bad; certainly nothing in the two sentences that one might label "wrong" or "inappropriate." Two actions and a response, with a certain amount of visual and tactile imagery.

Then it continues:

She could see, now, that the sand around her was of an almost metallic quality, like gold dust. But more of a bronze color, over there. And directly beneath her bottom and the soles of her feet, more of a dark sterling silver appearance. Perhaps it depended on how the light touched the heaped granules, or maybe these pulverized minerals had all been brought together to form this beach...the gold dust swept in from the ocean, all that remained of some crumbled golden city at the bottom of the sea....

It goes on for several lines, imagining sources for the silver and bronze, which have by now both become absolutes rather than images.

It we look back at the opening sentences, we notice that the key words are vivid and image-forming: drew in, sat up, grit, curve, bare back. In the middle of the third sentence, however, everything stalls. Could moderates the action in see, making the seeing less important than the ability to do so. Now seems to break up the flow. And then we come to "the sand around her was of an almost metallic quality." Key word: quality. Neither vivid nor visual, almost indefinably vague.

She is on a beach; that there is sand around her need not be specified. And instead of "of an almost metallic quality," why not simply metallic? And we are left with something as direct as "The sand was almost metallic, like gold dust." Or perhaps better: "The sand glittered, like gold dust."

The wordiness, the vagueness, the over-wrought sense of that sequence by itself would not draw particular attention. But it is followed by...precisely the same thing. "More of a bronze color...." Bronze is a color; it does not need to be specified. But more importantly, gold has earlier been treated as a thing; now, suddenly, the metals are qualities. There has been a subtle but significant shift in thought. Perhaps: "But over there," (assuming that the directional is needed) "more like bronze."

In the next sentence, directly tries too hard, since she is sitting on the sand and therefore it is beneath her bottom and her feet (soles might not be needed, especially since it requires an article, the, and a preposition, of, that go nowhere). Then, another abstraction: appearance surfaces as the climax to the long, rather turgid "dark sterling silver appearance." Why not a visual verb: "Beneath her, it shimmered darkly, like sterling silver."

In the next sentence, the passage gives up all pretense of telling a story and becomes declarative. In an attempt to become lyrical, it becomes wordy. "Heaped granules," "pulverized minerals" (silver and gold are, strictly speaking, not minerals but elements; and bronze is a non-naturally occurring alloy) almost overwhelm the pictorial sense, replacing it with something quasi-analytic, pseudo-scientific.

The final phrases simply surrender to the impulse to write words. Instead of the twenty-one forced words, perhaps: "the gold, all that remained of a crumbled city beneath the sea" (twelve words)—everything else in the original is either a given (sand is swept in from the ocean) or redundant (if it is gold, then the city had to have been golden, and if it is dust, then the city has crumbled).

The point of this exercise is not to demonstrate that the author was unskilled or untalented; indeed, this passage is remarkable because it is an exception in an otherwise disciplined, controlled series of stories. Instead, it is to suggest that in those moments when we want so much to create something powerful, lyrical, imposing...we are more likely to succumb to the lure of words and—simply put—try too hard.

Michael R. Collings, is Emeritus Professor of English and former director of Creative Writing and Poet-in-Residence for Pepperdine University. In addition to teaching subjects ranging from Beowulf to Stephen King, he has published over two dozen scholarly, critical, or bibliographic book-length studies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, including books on Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Piers Anthony, and Brian W. Aldiss. Dr. Collings has also published novels and multiple volumes of poetry and short fiction, including The Slab, The House Beyond the Hill, Dark Transformations and Naked to the Sun. He has been a Guest/GoH at a number of conferences and twice Academic GoH at the World Horror Convention. He is a two-time finalist for the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award; and currently serves as Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publications, reviewer for, and reviewer and columnist for Dark Discoveries, in addition to posting articles and reviews at Collings Notes.