Our world is shrinking: we can be in other countries in hours, we have excavated the past and broken the atom, our eyes have reached the stars. Knowledge renders the exotic ordinary - yet whenever we hear of a new discovery, don’t we feel a thrill?
What is that thrill we feel? For me, it is the lure of the story that really grips: have alien mega-structures been seen near a far-off star? Why did Stone Age man remove the heads from corpses? Who made the Nazca geoglyphs? Our minds slip inexorably to gods, aliens, zombies: where mystery is eliminated in the name of progress, the lure of the supernatural increases. Where once stories of things that go bump in the night were used to keep children well-behaved, now they excite us when our safely sanitised world leaves us cold.
Tales of the supernatural take us back to the moments when our ancestors clustered around the camp-fire; communities united against the unknown. Now there is little unknown and we have radiators, but a supernatural tale can, for a moment, return that sense of community. When shared, fear is fun.
Supernatural stories will always have a lure, we need the possibilities offered by the supernatural: life after death, eternal love, ultimate strength. And so the supernatural must come closer. As distance no longer equals mystery, the possibility of uncovering the supernatural in our own stomping ground becomes irresistible and the idea of ‘never stray from the path’ returns: hence the surge in ‘magical realism’ and the importance of balancing the natural and supernatural when we write.
So what are my top tips for writing a supernatural story that balances both natural and supernatural elements?
1. Set the story in a real world
The more real the world, the more the reader can suspend disbelief. Whether you set your story in a contemporary society, elsewhere in history or in a fantasy world, it must feel real. For that to happen you must know your world (and research is key). For example, on a planet of endless night, how do plants grow, what do people eat, how do they survive?
You must know your vegetation and wildlife, architecture, forms of transport, politics and government, what people eat, drink and do for entertainment. Even if you don’t think these things impact your story, they are the background to your character’s life experiences, a background that is essential if your characters are to be real.
You must know how your world got the way it is. What is the science behind your story, especially your supernatural elements (are your vampires traditional ones or is vampirism a disease or a biological weapon, where did it come from and why?). How does everything fit together? What is the current balance of natural and supernatural (and why)? Do your humans (if there are any) know about the supernatural and live with it, or is your story partially a discovery tale?
Once you know your world and its rules, it will exist as a real place in your mind when you write, but don’t fall prey to exposition. Allow your character’s interactions with their environment to show it to the reader. Subtlety is key to realism.
2. Stick to the Rules
It is vital to make sure that your supernatural characters are part of your world building: if they are hidden, is there evidence of their existence? If they are ‘out’, how have they affected the world around them? If it is a world of faeries, do people wear iron jewellery to protect themselves? Is music banned because musicians get stolen? Are colours that attract attention forbidden? If it is a world run by vampires, are people forced to donate to blood-banks? Has the sun been blotted out? Or if humans are in the ascendant, is it is a strict religious world where everyone carries holy symbols?
Which brings me to the rules. Once you know which supernatural element you are dealing with, you must establish its powers and limits (your creatures must have weaknesses or the story will be boring. If your supernatural creature is the protagonist, remember no-one wants to read about Mr Perfect, and if he, she or it is the antagonist how will the hero stand a chance of winning if there are no weak spots?).
Once you have worked out your rules, you must stick to them. A vampire cannot suddenly be able to wander about at midday, you must not gift them a magic amulet which means they are briefly protected. Even if it causes problems within your story, you must find a way out of the situation without bending the rules or using deus ex machina. Your story will be better for it.
3. Character and plot remain key
As with any writing, character and plot should remain your focus. Avoid tired clichés. Make sure that every character has a motive for their actions, that everyone is the hero of their own story (even if they are the bad guy in yours). Use character questionnaires (there is a good one in How to Write a Blockbuster by Lee Weatherley and Helen Corner) and make sure that depth of emotion are as real for these characters as they would be in any other form of literature.
4. Finally, remember the reason you are using the supernatural
Writing a vampire story just because you ‘like vampires’ is all very well, but in an excellent supernatural story those elements are core to the theme. So make sure that you know what you really want to explore through your writing (loss, addiction, responsibility, growing up, life after death etc) and use the supernatural to do so. For example, a vampire story could be about addiction, a ghost story about life after death and so on. If you can strip out your paranormal elements without it affecting the story as a whole, then it isn’t sufficiently integrated.
Writing supernatural, just like reading it, is a lot of fun and a real joy; and if you do the work you could end up with a story that takes us back to the camp fire and truly thrills.
Bryony Pearce, award winning author of Angel's Fury, The Weight of Souls, Phoenix Rising and forthcoming Phoenix Burning, lives in the Forest of Dean and writes books that she would like to read herself, isues driven YA literature with supernatural, science fiction or dystopian elements. She can usually be found writing, reading, writing reports for Cornerstones, or ferrying her children from place to place. She very much enjoys meeting her audience during school visits and other events and can be reached via her website.