When in Doubt, Light it on Fire or Blow it Up!


My brother and I love watching horror movies. We have our own movie marathons each Halloween because we think the ones on TV suck. We don’t want to see a bunch of crappy CGI or cutesy Casper movies. We want to see psychos in hockey masks with machetes chasing characters we’re actually rooting for so we can yell at the screen, “Don’t go in there! He’s behind the door!”


Cliche? Maybe, but it’s what we do. We kind of bonded over it because no one else in our family can stand horror movies. When I was in high school, we even wrote a horror movie survival guide called When in Doubt, Light it on Fire or Blow it Up! That was our catch-all advice for when our more specific strategies failed to help our hypothetical reader. Very few monsters can withstand fire or explosives without at least giving you some time to escape. It is advice that has carried over into my writing life when I feel a story is getting stale or going nowhere. It reminds me that it’s okay to shake things up and go for broke.

Hell, it’s more than okay, it’s necessary. Not every book or short story needs a literal explosion, but they do all need that energy. That element of the unexpected. If you lose that, you’re not doing yourself or anyone else any good. Before you know it, you’re on page three hundred and even you are so bored you can’t remember why you thought this book was a good idea.

Here are some ideas to help you shake things up and get going again if you get stuck:

1.) Introduce a new character. When Stephen Hunter started working on Point of Impact, he wasn’t happy with the way it was progressing when along came Nick Memphis. Hunter didn’t know why Nick was in the book at that point or where he’d come from, but he went with it and got the book back on track. (This informaton came from The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler, an anthology of crime fiction writers explaining how their characters came to be. I highly recommend it.)

2.) Kill off an existing character.  This one is difficult for me. I get very attached to my characters, but they say in writing you have to kill your darlings, and sometimes that’s what is needed for the good of the book as a whole.

3.) Damage your protagonist. This will build tension faster than almost anything. Remember when Annie Wilkes breaks Paul’s legs in Misery? Or when Bob Lee Swagger ends up with an artificial hip? The damage doesn’t have to be physical damage, either. Alex Cross’s wife dying is a necessary catalyst to the action of his story.

4.) Have a change of heart. Give your character  an epiphany or a moral dilemma. Let them experience some mental or spiritual growth or decline and do something they wouldn’t have done at the beginning of the book. This gives your character more depth, and what has happened to them more meaning.

5.) Literally blow something up. When Stephen King got about half way through writing The Stand, he had tons of characters and tons of plot lines, (All masterfully handled. I’m still in awe of this book.) and society started to bounce back from the epidemic more quickly than he’d hoped. So, he decided to have a bomb go off in Boulder, Colorado to restart the action and refocus the story where he wanted it. Extreme? Yes. Effective? Hell yes. (I believe I got this story from the introduction of The Stand, but it may have been in Danse Macabre. I looked through both and couldn’t find it at a glance, but I know I read it somewhere, damn it.)



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5 responses to “When in Doubt, Light it on Fire or Blow it Up!

  1. Annette

    Great stuff! Glad you’re blogging. See you next Wednesday.

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