Notes on Writing Weird Fiction
by H.P. Lovecraft
written in 1933, published in the June 1937 issue of Amateur Correspondent

My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of
visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive,
fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy
which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural,
atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art
and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination
best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve,
momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of
the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever
imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic
spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories
frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest
and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the
creation of Nature-defying illusions. 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.
      While my chosen form of story-writing is obviously a special and
perhaps a narrow one, it is none the less a persistent and permanent
type of expression, as old as literature itself. There will always be a
certain small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about
unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the
prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of
incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to
us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and
flaming sunsets momentarily suggest. These persons include great
authors as well as insignificant amateurs like myself—Dunsany, Poe,
Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare
being typical masters in this field.
      As to how I write a story—there is no one way. Each one of my
tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written
out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I
wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good
way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of
being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list
of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or
idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally
motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of
the basic condition or situation chosen.
      The actual process of writing is of course as varied as the
choice of theme and initial conception; but if the history of all my
tales were analysed, it is just possible that the following set of
rules might be deduced from the average procedure:

  1. Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrencenot
    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
    for mulating 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 story telling, 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 of 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.

The first of these stages is often purely a mental one—a set of
conditions and happenings being worked out in my head, and never set
down until I am ready to prepare a detailed synopsis of events in order
of narration. Then, too, I sometimes begin even the actual writing
before I know how I shall develop the idea—this beginning forming a
problem to be motivated and exploited.
      There are, I think, four distinct types of weird story; one expressing a mood or feeling, another expressing a pictorial conception, a third expressing a general situation, condition, legend or intellectual conception, and a fourth explaining a definite tableau or specific dramatic situation or climax. In another way, weird tales may be grouped into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.
      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.
      In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve
the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs.
One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan-fiction, present an
account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a
commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions.
Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to over
come, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a
careful realism in every phase of the story except
that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very
impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else
it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the
story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events.
But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except
where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder,
the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar
characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a
wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be
accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and
impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual
style ruins any serious fantasy.
      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. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle
suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative
detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of
the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible
happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a
sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.
      These are the rules or standards which I have
followed—consciously or unconsciously—ever since I first attempted the
serious writing of fantasy. That my results are successful may well be
disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored the
considerations mentioned in the last few paragraphs, they would have
been much worse than they are.

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