Kath here. Today’s guest is bestselling novelist Amanda Stevens. Author of acclaimed paranormal thrillers, Amanda has been writing and publishing since 1989, so she knows a thing or two about the craft of fiction. Her new series, THE GRAVEYARD QUEEN, kicks off in May 2011 with the debut title THE RESTORER. Set in the gracious South and infused with the supernatural, Amanda’s books deliver a hefty dose of tingles along with a gripping plot and characters that stay with you long after you close the book.
“Basically, I love anything creepy and gothic—old houses with hidden stairwells, forgotten graveyards, deserted insane asylums,” Amanda says. “I’m more drawn to the South of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte than to that of Steel Magnolias.”
We’re thrilled to welcome Amanda Stevens to Writer Unboxed today.
I’m not talking sex appeal or pheromones here, but the aspect of your story that provides a built-in pitch, a wow factor, an aha! element that packs a visceral punch.
It’s like high concept only different.
At its most basic, the definition of high concept is a premise or idea that can be summed up in one sentence. But screenwriter Terry Russio (Pirates of the Caribbean) says an idea must be more than just clear and simple, it must also attract an audience AND professionals to your project. It must have what he calls a STRANGE ATTRACTOR. “Strange meaning unique and attractor meaning compelling. Something unique that is also compelling.” An element that is so clever, so ingenious, so kick-ass it turns other writers pea green with envy. And who doesn’t love that? (By the way, if you haven’t been to Rossio’s website, www.wordplayer.com, OMG, run, don’t walk and prepare to spend hours because each essay there is a gem.)
A strange attractor is more precise than high concept because it zeroes in on the most compelling aspect of the premise. A good attractor defines the characters, shapes the plot and drives the action. Conversely, even the most innovative concept can fail if the writer mistakes what element of the story is going to hold the reader.
Let’s explore some examples. And since I’m in the Halloween spirit, let’s make them appropriate to the season. (Full disclosure—I haven’t seen these movies so my thanks to Fangoria—A Celebration of the World’s Most Unheralded Fright Flicks and IMDB for providing the synopses.)
Concept: An alien has behaved badly in his home world and is sentenced to the worst punishment imaginable—he is banished to planet Earth.
Not a bad premise and it can easily be summed up in one sentence. The potential of the setup is obvious and instantly conjures all kinds of scenarios for conflict and whacky hijinks. It’s the old stranger in a strange land concept that strikes a universal chord. I’m intrigued and heading to Netflix.
But wait. What about the…
Strange Attractor: Arriving on our world, the alien immediately finds he has a problem—his head explodes easily and frequently.
Yes! Now this movie is going straight to the top of my queue. Admittedly, the attractor is a little over the top, but it’s fresh and fun, the most unique and compelling aspect of the premise. How the alien deals with the problem of borrowing human heads will define his character, shape the plot, and drive the action.
Concept: In the year 2019, vampires rule the world.
Excellent idea. I’m envisioning Underworld meets The Matrix. Twilight meets Blade Runner.
And now we stir in a little…
Strange Attractor: The vampires are running out of blood.
Suddenly it becomes Thirty Days of Night meets Marie Antoinette. Nothing wreaks havoc like a hungry mob—especially a mob of vampires—and I’m salivating at the prospect.
Concept: In the small town of Cherry Falls, there is a sexually bewildered serial killer on the hunt for virgins.
Strange Attractor: The best way to stay alive is to lose your cherry!
Enough said, I think.
So in summary, a good attractor can flip your high concept on its head, spin it, twist it, and then knock it on its backside, generating all sorts of interesting situations and conflict. It captivates the reader and elevates the premise. It attracts and compels. It thrills, chills, and excites.
The strange attractor…take one along on your next writer’s journey and see where it leads you.