Monday, October 31, 2011

So you want to inject the paranormal into your writing...

Crossing paranormal with other fictional categories — be they mystery, romance or general fiction — couldn’t get any hotter. But there are pitfalls those new to paranormal writing can easily fall into, which can doom a manuscript. Here are some tips to help you avoid those pitfalls:

1. The worst mistake newbies can make is thinking the supernatural elements are just tack-ons. The paranormal aspects must an integral part of the storyline. If you can imagine removing the magical elements, while telling the same story and having it turn out the same way — you’re not using it right.

2. Readers need to understand the rules governing the magical aspects of the world you’re depicting. You can explain those rules — and whatever consequences might result — either explicitly or by allowing the reader to absorb their essence by showing them at work. Most writers use a combination of both. Some can be accomplished by including a character that encounters the paranormal for the first time. The reader can learn how these rules function as the character does, and the reader can share her surprise.

3. You need to decide whether the magical aspects are known to the general populace of your world, or not. Either way works, but there is a built-in level of conflict if your paranormal beings have to struggle to hide their natures. In the Harry Potter novels, the muggles — non-paranormal beings — are generally unaware of the wizardry being performed in their midst, which provides lots of opportunities for conflict, as well as humor.

4. Characters who possess supernatural abilities must be seen using those abilities, or we need to know why not. For instance, Annabelle Haggerty, the Celtic goddess/FBI agent protagonist of my Magical Mystery, MAGICAL ALIENATION, needs to be careful how much magic she performs at the FBI, where she must hide her secret nature. But I once worked with a writing client who described her protagonist as telepathic with animals, yet the character never displayed any telepathy in her frustrating interactions with animals, until the three-quarter point of the novel, for no reason that was ever explained.

5. Magical characters must still be real characters, as richly developed as those not possessing paranormal abilities, yet not be perfect beings, either. Your novel should contain challenging personal growth arcs for these characters, too, even if they also have some extraordinary abilities. 

6. Just as everything comes together in the climax of any other novel, it must in a paranormal work. The solution your protagonist employs to meet her goal must rely on both her natural and supernatural abilities, to bring about a solution that works on both levels. She should also overcome her personal challenges, achieving personal growth as she achieves her story-objective.

7. Most importantly, even magical beings have to earn their successes. If you allow your protagonist to finalize the action in the climax with the effortless waving of a wand, or some solution not inherent within the storyline, you will lose your reader’s respect. If you change the magical rules you’ve already established to allow your character an effortless solution, you’ll also lose that reader. For the reader to continue to suspect disbelief, she must trust in the integrity of your novel. If you want to get around some generally accepted paranormal beliefs, find a realistic way to do it. In the TWILIGHT series, for example, Stephenie Meyer circumvented the belief that vampires can’t go out during the day without burning up by choosing a locale that’s heavily overcast.

Writing paranormal can be extra challenging because so much has to be integrated, and it must work equally well on multiple levels. But it’s great fun to write, and these tips should speed you on your way toward writing paranormal cross-category success.


  1. Kris,
    Thanks for an awesome post. Writing paranormal into a story can be a lot of fun, and like you say can be a real challenge. I am often disappointed in writers that fail to grasp what their characters can really do, that takes so much life out of the story when they do that. I hope that writers learn from this post and take to heart what you have said.
    Thanks for sharing, and good luck in your work.
    AM Burns

  2. Thanks! I agree completely. Writers new to paranormal should read more in that area to open their minds to new mythologies and possibilities. Thanks for the good wishes.

  3. Great post, Kris. I once took a romantic suspense and turned it into a paranormal. My book that just released, Embrace the Highland Warrior used to be a romantic suspense. I made it paranormal, but only after I realized the story was perfect for my paranormal series, granted, with some work. But I had to do so much work, it would've been easier to write it from scratch. But it was worth it. It belonged there.

  4. You ended up where you're supposed to be, Anita, and that's the important thing. Some books just make us take a roundabout route. Congrats on your publication!

  5. Kris,
    Thanks for the post. You could easily turn this information into an online tutorial. My mystery series has elements of the paranormal and I struggled to get the tricky balance you mentioned between fact, fiction and fantasy. Where were you ten years ago!

  6. Where was I ten years ago? Trying to figure this stuff out myself! I love that tricky balance between fact, fiction and fantasy. It makes me feel -- and I hope my readers, too -- that I could turn a corner anywhere in the real world and see some of the fantastic things I describe in my books. But I agree that getting it all to come together right is harder than writing something set completely in the real world. At some point, I probably will create a paranormal writing class, but given time constraints, right now I have to limit it to blogs and workshops. Thanks, Luisa!