5 Amazing Tips for Writing Weird Fiction From HP Lovecraft Himself
I am a huge fan of the “weird fiction” sub genre, which is typically populated by elder gods, dark cults, and outer horrors. I love the genre and its newer manifestation, the “new weird,” which is reflected in greater and lesser degrees by authors like China Mieville, Jeff VanDermeer, and Alastair Reynolds. While reading I have found myself wondering, “What makes these stories work? How are they constructed?” I’m not a writer of weird fiction (not yet anyway), but I decided to do some digging and found a short writing by H.P. Lovecraft himself named “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” which I found pretty illuminating on the subject as a reader and could be immensely useful for writer who wants break into the genre.
H.P. Lovecraft is a pretty controversial figure in the speculative fiction world. The reason for this is pretty clear, he is both one of the most influential forces on modern genre writers and a very clear and unabashed racist. There is no sugar coating that fact. Interestingly one of the reasons that he is so influential is the exact same reason that we know about his insanely racist views. See, shortly after his death a group of his most dedicated fans and friends started fighting for all of his documents, work papers, and correspondence. His will wasn’t exactly illuminating. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the documents were given to the John Hay Library which is why they still survive. This is why we have so much of his great, unpublished literary criticism available to us today… and also extremely racist letters he wrote to his friends. Lovecraft’s racism is a topic that both deserves and has garnered a lot of attention and analysis which we will explore further, but for today lets talk about how he constructed his writings and what we can learn.
Lovecraft outlines five steps he always took when knocking out a story and people seem to really focus pretty heavily on these, although the steps can be applicable to writing any kind of fiction.
1. “Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence —not the order of their narration. Describe with enough fullness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned.” See how this first step applies to almost any kind of fiction? Think about the classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express, where so many of the important things that drive the characters we meet happened well before we meet them as readers and are only revealed to us at the very end. Lovecraft found it helpful to create a chronological road map before he started writing so he could reference it in step two.
2. “Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fullness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax.” The first synopsis, if written in full, would not at all be interesting to read. This second synopsis is where narrative drama and action are created. Lovecraft’s story don’t tend to jump around in time frames, but a close look at his narration shows that they actually do. Our characters often get pieces of the first, chronological, scenario revealed to them slowly, out of order, or only indirectly. This seems pretty obvious, that fiction should read more like a story and less like a newspaper article, but I think what Lovecraft found most helpful about this framework is that it helped him to visualize the two timelines and shift the narrative based on the chronological framework. Of course, he also notes that if you need to make some changes to the chronological scenario to make the narrative work, by all means do so!
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.” Again, advice that can apply to all fiction writing, get in there and write, fleshing out the second step and changing things around if you need to. Get it all down and deal with the grammar and such later.
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.” This is where he added the polish and then,
5. “Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.”
These five steps are great guide for any fiction writer from one of the greatest speculative short fiction authors and that is usually where the analysis of “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” stops, but there are a few more gems that are applicable to the horror and weird fiction genres. After describing his five steps, Lovecraft delves deeper into the actual themes that make weird fiction so great.
“Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.”
The cover of Weird Tales, April 1929 where The Dunwich Horror was first published. Cover art by Hugh Rankin.
In each weird tale, whether you are writing one or reading one, identification of each of these elements. Take for example H.P. Lovecraft’s classic “The Dunwich Horror”: what is the horror, what are its general effects, and what are the specific effects? You can read it for free right now over at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Notice also that in order to create the desired atmosphere the reader is given more detail about the specific effects and less about the horror itself and in many ways you can think of the five elements on a scale, ranging from the least detail for A and the most detail for E. Again, “The Dunwich Horror” is such a great example of this technique because we are given ample detail about the specific effects, the fear reactions it creates, but very little detail about the actual horror until we meet it at the end of the story. Also note that while reading “The Dunwich Horror” the reader can be led to believe that perhaps Wilbur Whateley is the horror, yet at more detail is revealed about him he slides down the scale to a mere “manifiestation” of the horror and likewise even as we finally see the titular horror at the end of the story, it too slides down to a “manifestation” as we receive more detail leaving the true, Lovecraft “Element A” horror as whatever lies in the void behind the Whateley’s occult gate.
This truly brilliant use of the five weird fiction elements is used to drive in a singular direction, the atmosphere. Lovecraft writes that “Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood.” Indeed, readers only interface with the weird tale through the emotions develop within the characters and the atmosphere that surrounds them. So much of the action in great Lovecraft tales, “The Dunwich Horror” included, is implied, told second hand, or overheard on the other end of a phone or through a letter. The atmosphere is always thick, but the action is always reserved for the end or sometimes never even shown at all.
If you are interested in reading the entire text of “Notes on Weird Fiction” you can read it for free over at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive. and if you want to know more about the fictional world that he created in his writings, make sure to check out our infographic Lovecraft Country. You can stay up to date with all of our news, reviews and analysis of the horror and science fiction genres by subscribing below or by clicking “follow us” to the right to keep up to date with us on Facebook and Twitter!