I’ve just finished reading Afraid, by J. A. Konrath, writing as Jack Kilborn. It’s a corking yarn that I’d classify as light horror reading, if there can be such a thing. I managed to cull a few writing lessons from the book, which I will now share for you edification.
Straightforward plot. Afraid proves that a novel doesn’t have to be super complicated to be effective. A group of five psychos-turned-by-science-into-super-soldiers arrives in a remote small town. The psychos perpetrate some seriously unsavory hijinks on the townsfolk, thus bringing themselves into conflict with the good guys. The good guys, a few townspeople with the luck and pluck to fight back, eventually win the day, but not before weathering some of the most harrowing abuse imaginable. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not much.
Lesson: Don’t make your plot any more complicated than it has to be (but don’t make it any less so, either).
Well-defined characters. I’ve read things in which the characters are very hard to tell apart. Konrath/Kilborn avoids this by giving each character distinguishing characteristics both physical and psychological. The sheriff is old, near retirement, and nursing a lifelong grudge against his brother. The primary female character is a pretty blonde who works hard to support her son, to whom she is totally devoted. The largest member of the psycho squad is seven feet tall, built like a Sherman tank, and has the IQ of a walnut. These characteristics and more are often drawn with action and dialogue, rather than outright description.
Lesson: Distinguish your characters physically and psychologically, and do it with action and dialogue as much as possible.
Vivid imagery. Afraid delivers a lot of its horror with vivid images of terrible acts you might never have even thought of. The straight descriptions, which are necessary, are mixed in with related action and the combination often hits you right in the gut. Notice in the following example how physical descriptions, character actions and internal dialogue combine to hammer home the horror Note: If you don’t like horrific images, don’t read the excerpt.
Something hit Fran in the chest, bringing her back to the present, making her flinch. It clung to her shirt. Warm and wet, like a towel. What was it? What had he thrown at her? She shook her shoulders, but it didn’t move. Fran needed to let go of the shelf, needed to release her hands so she could knock off whatever— The flashlight came on, pointing at her. Fran looked at her chest and saw something red and rubbery and shredded hanging there. Something wearing Al’s walrus mustache. And then the light went off. Fran screamed. She screamed and screamed and then her paralysis broke and her hands opened up and she batted Al’s face off herself, arms flailing out as if she were being attacked by a swarm of bees. (Konrath, J.A.; Kilborn, Jack (2012-09-30). Afraid – A Novel of Terror (p. 41-43). . Kindle Edition.)
Lesson: Use multiple techniques to build imagery that hits home.
In brief, some other lessons from Afraid are:
Use suspense by pressuring the good guys. Things keep getting worse and worse for the good guys and the bad guys keep popping up even when you think they are done for.
Save the day in an interesting way.Yes, amid all these crazy soldiers and suffering townsfolk and bravery and bloodshed and stuff, there’s a monkey running around and he turns out to be the key to salvation (almost… heh, heh, heh…).
Add a touch of romance. Two of the good guys fall in love, or close to it, during all the mayhem. Their existing, suppressed feelings for each other are galvanized by the crisis.
Put in a kid. Few things elicit sympathy like a good kid who is having a hard time but doing his or her best to cope. There’s a boy in Afraid who manages to be admirable without being depicted as a short adult.
Sacrifice. In the end, the sheriff sacrifices himself to complete the salvation of the other good guys and end the psycho-soldier threat. It’s a poignant touch that makes the book’s conclusion memorable.