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I Have Dean Koontz's Head in a Box


When I was a teenager I went through a phase where I read nothing other than Dean Koontz. Well, except for skimming whatever I was supposed to have read for class the next day if that counts. As an adult who writes speculative fiction I wanted to figure out what younger me was so fascinated with, so I re-read some of his books and did some analysis. 


In retrospect his books, at least those he was putting out in the late-80's, are very formulaic. But that formula was to take all that draws me into reading and distill it down into the sweep syrup of awesomeness. What Koontz did, time and again, was to create somewhat surreal situations that made you say, "Well now how does this make any sense?" and then by the end of the book, it all makes perfect sense. Since Koontz writes speculative fiction, the answer would often have a science-fiction or supernatural angle to it, but still, by the end you would always be able to look back at all the different things that made you scratch your head through the whole book and they would all make sense in light of the answer.


There's one of his books that I can't remember the name of, or even most of the details, but there's one thing that sticks out in my mind as a great example. Main character goes to this town where some weird stuff's been going on - some grizzly murders, I think, but also other stuff that is weird and seems unconnected to any reason anyone would murder anyone. First night there he goes to a Mexican restaurant. As he sits and waits for his food he realizes something odd - the restaurant is crowded, but almost everyone is eating in silence. And not just eating in silence, but shovelling huge amounts of food into their mouths. Thin people are eating plate after plate of food, more than seems possible.


So now you're wondering: why? How the heck does people eating huge quantities of food have to do with vicious killings? And if you were a regular reader of Koontz you knew it was going to be connected because it always was. The answer: the town was lousy with werewolves. 




Ah, see, Koontz was also pretty good at finding interesting new angles on old ideas. Every time someone transforms into a werewolf they burn a huge number of calories. Hence, after transforming to a werewolf and back again to human the person was ravenous. And apparently had a hankerin' for tacos. Koontz would throw a bunch of these in every book, so that by the time you're 100 pages in to a 300 page book you've got five or six surreal things that you're looking at in your head and thinking, "There's no way all these oddly shaped puzzle pieces are going to fit together and make a clear picture." But then they do. And you're delighted. So you buy his next book. Clever bugger, that Koontz.


There's a theory (that I very much subscribe to) that stories only move forward through questions. When there's no more questions the reader wants to know the answer to, the story is finished. But in order for your story to not feel like it's stuck in neutral you must answer some of the questions. The trick is to overlap them. A method I dreamed up to help me do this is to make sure I have three different levels of questions going on: some that are asked and answered inside of one scene, some that are asked in one scene and answered in another, and one big one that lasts the entire story. This last one is often the same thing as the plot.


The example I use for this is the movie Seven.

Question that lasts the entire story: Who is committing these murders and why?

Question that is asked in one scene and answered in a different scene: Why would this killer go through such lengths to remain anonymous, then turn himself in to the police?

Question that is asked and answered inside of one scene: What's in the box?


If a writer can put these together - create a number of overlapping surreal questions that all resolve into a cohesive answer at the story's end - that writer will have a winner story. Well, assuming that the writer also has engaging characters and great prose, but we're not talking about those right now. One thing at a time, kids.

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