Crafting Horror: Theatre of the Mind
by H.R. Boldwood
How do you define theatre of the mind? In its broadest sense, theatre of the mind uses sensation to evoke a person’s perception and imagination.
Some folks might think of the old-time radio programs of the 30’s and 40’s when fascinating stories played over the airwaves and transported people to another place and time. In 1938, Orson Well’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds managed to spawn national panic by convincing us the Earth was under attack by Martians!
And he did it using primitive sound effects that pandered to the listener’s ear.
Baby boomers might picture a more high-tech version of the theatre of the mind. Take, for example, the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter attraction at Disney World (circa 1995 -2003). In an effort to entertain and heighten the anticipation of the line-weary crowd, Disney broadcast a brilliantly crafted preshow infomercial from the intergalactic company, XS Tech, which boasted, “If something can’t be done with XS, it shouldn’t be done at all.”
The crowd chuckled. Surely, disaster awaited.
Once the program began, the Chairman of XS Tech, an alien named L.C. Clench, announced that he would travel to Earth via the teleportation tube in the center of the auditorium.
But something went horribly wrong. Suddenly, lights strobed, steam hissed, and alarms sounded. The audience saw just enough to know that it wasn’t L.C. Clench who had arrived in the teleportation tube, but a hideous winged alien instead. Oh no!
The tube slowly cracked, then burst wide open. The alien escaped! And just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, the power in the auditorium went out. The audience was thrust into darkness. A technician rushed to fix the problem, but by the sound of it, he’d been savagely killed by the extraterrestrial beast. The audience was trapped, harnessed into their seats in the pitch-black auditorium with a vicious alien on the loose!
The floor shook as the alien tromped around the room. The audience heard his tortured breathing, felt his hot breath down the backs of their necks. They twitched as his tail skittered across the backs of their calves and screamed as saliva dripped down on them from above.
Miraculously, the power was restored, the lights came back on, and the monster was captured just in the nick of time.
Whew! That was a close one! And what a delight to the senses.
Both War of the Worlds and Alien Encounter are perfect examples of theatre of the mind.
But what about what we do — we horror writers? Aren’t we providing our readers with theatre of the mind?
We should be.
We ask our readers to suspend their disbelief hoping we can take them on a ride just long enough to tell them our tales. If we have any hope of achieving that goal, it’s going to be by making those readers actually live our stories.
We’ve been lectured to death to ‘show not tell.’ In essence, we are being told to engage our reader’s senses.
I read a David Farland writing tip recently wherein he quoted the words of the poet, Leslie Norris. “When it rains in your story, your readers should get wet.”
It’s that simple.
Perceptions and imagination are evoked through the senses. Ergo, if we manage our readers’ perceptions and awaken their imaginations, we can create an alternate reality for them.
We can put them in the jungles of Viet Nam, the furthest reaches of space, a haunted house, or even the bowels of Hell. And we do it by evoking their senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
Here’s another outstanding nugget I’ve gleaned from David Farland’s tips: Not all people experience the world in the same way — much like we all don’t learn the same way. Some people learn by doing, others by watching, still others by listening.
It’s similar to the way people process what they’ve read. A person who learns by doing leans heavily on their sense of touch. That individual might prefer reading descriptions that are very tactile in nature. A person who prefers to watch and learn might prefer highly visual descriptions, while the person that learns by listening might prefer reading about the sounds of a setting.
That makes perfect sense – no pun intended. It also suggests that we need to incorporate all the senses into our stories, as often as possible. Including the senses artfully and in tandem helps create settings that transport our readers to the worlds we’ve created.
While we’re at it, are we letting our readers know what’s going on inside our characters’ heads? How they’re feeling? Internal dialog is a useful tool in this regard. My good friend, Killion Slade, introduced me to another dynamite tool, the Emotion Thesaurus, written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book lists common emotions and their physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, as well as cues of their acute or long term duration and cues of their being suppressed. It’s become one of my favorite resources and it makes it easier than ever to create three-dimensional characters to star in my theatre of the mind productions.
No, there isn’t anything new and groundbreaking about writing descriptors, whether they’re painting a vivid setting or our characters’ emotions. This stuff has been drilled into us for years.
But if it’s really all that rudimentary, why don’t we each look back at one of our stories to see how frequently we actually do it. According to Farland and other successful writers, we should be hitting all of the senses on just about every page. That’s a whole lot of seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and touching going on. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start focusing on this a bit more.
I wonder how my characters will feel about that.
- David Farland is an award-winning, bestselling international fantasy author, widely known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series, The Runelords. Interested people can sign up to receive David’s e-mailed writing tips at www.davidfarland.com.
H.R. Boldwood is a writer of horror and speculative fiction. In another incarnation, Boldwood is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was awarded the 2009 Bilbo Award for creative writing by Thomas More College. Publication credits include, “Killing it Softly”, “Short Story America”, “Bete Noir”, “Everyday Fiction”, “Toys in the Attic”, “Floppy Shoes Apocalypse II”, “Pilcrow and Dagger”, “Quickfic”, and “Sirens Call”. Boldwood’s story, ‘In the Shadow of Fire’ will be appearing in the anthology “Saturalia,” published by Hyperion and Theia in late 2017.
Boldwood’s characters are often disreputable and not to be trusted. They are kicked to the curb at every conceivable opportunity. No responsibility is taken by this author for the dastardly and sometimes criminal acts committed by this ragtag group of miscreants.
H.R. Boldwood can sometimes be found writing as Mary Ann Back, whose collection of short stories “Dead Reckoning”, published by Grey Wolfe Publishing, is available at www.amazon.com.
Amazon Author Central address: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01LWY22MD