The late 19th and early 20th century was an intriguing and dynamic time for horror fiction. In the wake of the Romantic period, new vistas had been opened in dark fiction with topics touching on ghosts, paranormal science, and the occult, blossoming into a subgenre known as “Weird Fiction” by the end of the 1800’s. Weird fiction emphasized tales of the macabre and supernatural, often with a science fiction edge, creepy stories that readers already piqued by Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe devoured, leading to the proliferation of speculative fiction magazines such as Weird Tales in the early 20th century.
The term weird fiction was popularized by perhaps one of the best known writers of the genre, H. P. Lovecraft, crafter of the Cthulu mythos. In his 1937 essay Notes on Writing Weird Fiction, Lovecraft explains his prediliction for “weird” stories, a genre he felt required not just the presence of simple sheeted spectres, but a certain “breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces.”
” Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.”
Lovecraft goes on to outline five steps for writing quality weird fiction, steps that truthfully apply to nearly any foray into fiction writing. For fans of Lovecraft and the Chthulu mythos, it is a fascinating peek inside the process to create an entire literary universe. For my readers who are established or aspiring authors, these are five tips that will cause you to flex your writing muscles.
1. Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence —not the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.
2. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax. Change the original synopsis to fit if such a change will increase the dramatic force or general effectiveness of the story. Interpolate or delete incidents at will—never being bound by the original conception even if the ultimate result be a tale wholly different from that first planned. Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the formulating process.
3. Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. If the development suddenly reveals new opportunities for dramatic effect or vivid storytelling, add whatever is thought advantageous—going back and reconciling the early parts to the new plan. Insert and delete whole sections if necessary or desirable, trying different beginnings and endings until the best arrangement is found. But be sure that all references throughout the story are thoroughly reconciled with the final design. Remove all possible superfluities—words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole episodes or elements—observing the usual precautions about the reconciling of all references.
4. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness or transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa. . . . etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.
5. Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.
You can read Lovecraft’s complete essay on writing weird fiction at the H. P. Lovecraft Archive and an interesting article on the topic from Open Culture. For our complete collection of Lovecraft articles, visit the TYoH Archive.