Alexander Gordon Smith

Archive for the Category Workshop Wednesday


Workshop Wednesday! Horror Prompts!

I’ve been running quite a few horror writing workshops lately – and will be doing two more in the following weeks at the Bath and Cheltenham Literary Festivals if any of you fancy coming along! – and a few people have requested some prompts to help them get started. So here you go!

This list includes a few genre favourites that can be fun to work with. It is by no means extensive, and never feel like you have to stick to any one of these. Try mixing them up, and just have fun!

Okay, here we go…

There’s No Way Out!

One of the best places to set a horror story is somewhere you can’t escape from. Why else do you think I set the Furnace series in a terrifying underground prison! In fact, most of my books have elements of imprisonment in them, because there really are few things scarier than being trapped, with no hope of escape. The thing to do is to try and make the ‘thing’ that is trapping your characters feel like an entity in its own right. That’s what I wanted with Furnace, for the prison to feel like the bad guy, the thing you completely and utterly hated. Hopefully it worked! Also, when you trap your characters in a place where they can’t rely on others to save them, it forces them to use their own strengths to find a way out, which is perfect for a horror story. It’s up to you to imagine where your characters might be trapped – an underground facility, an alien spaceship, a nightmare, in a school after dark with a serial killer – but the scarier the place, and the more secure it is, the more exciting the story will be!

There’s a Killer in the House!

Oh, and a variation of this is the Killer in the House scenario. Essentially, this is the same as There’s No Way Out, but throw in a few monsters / killers / aliens etc as well! Trapped stories work best when there is an extra dimension of fear, something locked inside the same location that is trying to find and attack your characters. Monsters are far scarier when there is no escape from them! It’s one thing to meet a wheezer in a dark alley where you can run away from it, but meet one just outside your cell, where there is no escape… Try mixing locations with different kinds of threats and monsters, you can have loads of terrifying fun!

Don’t Mess With Nature!!

So many horror stories begin with somebody messing with nature – a mad scientist developing a new kind of technology that goes wrong, perhaps, or a new drug that has a horrific side effect, such as turning people in zombies. This can work on any scale. You could easily have a story about a science teacher at school who accidentally mixes the wrong ingredients for an experiment and creates a toxic monster / deadly gas / superpower potion. Or maybe the government claim to have developed a pill that protects you from all diseases, but which actually has a more sinister purpose… It’s totally up to you! Play god, nature is now yours to control! *evil laugh*

I Curse You!

I love these kinds of stories! The ones where somebody, or a group of somebodies, fall foul of an ancient and evil curse that makes life very, very difficult for them. Again, the cause of the curse can be completely up to you! You can go down the traditional route and have your characters trespass in a forbidden place – an ancient burial ground, a pyramid during a school trip to Egypt – or have them break some kind of rule – insulting a witch, dancing on a grave, buying a cursed object – or something completely weird – like accidentally spelling a mysterious word during a game of Scrabble. It’s completely up to you! And think about what effect the curse might have. Does it make everyone hate your characters? Or maybe nobody remembers them? Maybe they grow horns on their head, or all their skin falls off. Ew! Maybe it even has a positive effect, like making them unable to die. When you’re writing a curse story, it’s good to have a way of reversing the curse so that your characters have something to work towards. Do they have to kill the thing that cursed them? Or maybe they need to help it do something, like escape its prison. I’m just thinking off the top of my head here!

It’s Going to Eat the World!

And finally (for today), we’ve got the monster story. I love monsters, the scarier the better. And there’s nothing better than a monster so powerful that it could devour the whole world – which is why I used one in The Fury! I deliberately chose to leave the origin of this creature a mystery. I’d given all the bad guys in the Furnace books an identity and a back-story, which I think makes them more interesting. But there’s something terrifying about the unknowable. We know so little about the universe, and what’s out there, that it’s a little naïve to think we can explain away everything in a story. Giving the Man in the Storm a reason for being, a back-story, an explanation, would have undermined the very nature of it, would have made it knowable. But it’s completely up to you what kind of monster you use, and whether or not to explain its existence. Play around with some ideas. Remember, monsters don’t have to be huge. A monster that can creep into your ear and fix itself onto your brain is just as terrifying as one that can destroy a whole city with a flick of its finger.

Anyway, I hope these ideas come in handy if you’re looking for inspiration! The important thing is to have fun with them. The more fun you’re having the more you’ll enjoy telling the story, and the more active your imagination will be. I’ll be back soon with some more prompts and writing advice!

Oh, and for any of you in the UK who fancies coming along to a horror writing workshop, here are the details of my next two events. It would be awesome to see some of you there!


Sunday 29th September, 11.00-12.30am, Holburne Museum, Bath – All Abilities Welcome, Age 12+


Saturday 5th October, 10.00-12.00am, Parabola Dance Studio, Cheltenham – All Abilities Welcome, Age 12-18


Workshop Wednesday No. 1: How would you like to die?

"A better man than I am, and much beloved," is how Proust wanted to die. What about your characters?


So, I was thinking about putting some more workshops up on my blog. Nothing too fancy, just bits and pieces that I use when I’m writing. Some you’ve probably seen before, others will be rubbish, but occasionally there might be a nugget of something useful that will help you when you’re working on your books. And why Wednesdays? Well, I like alliteration, so it was the only day that would go with Workshop.

When I run workshops, I always say that characters are the most important thing in writing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the most amazing plot in the world, if your characters look like they’ve been hacked out of cardboard then nobody is going to believe in them, and nobody is going to care what happens to them. Get your characters right and not only will people be desperate to know what happens to them, but those characters will actually end up writing the story for you. You just have to try to keep up.

I usually do a simple questionnaire for my main characters when I’m starting a book, just a quick interrogation. It helps you think about them as living, breathing human beings rather than literary devices. A while back, though, I found something a little more useful: Proust’s Questionnaire (if you read Vanity Fair magazine you’ll know all about this). Proust didn’t invent this, he was just famous for his answers (the manuscript of which sold a decade or so ago for a small fortune). I don’t think it’s designed for literary characters, it’s more about confessions, about discovering hidden truths in your own personality (so by all means have a go at it yourself). But it’s incredibly useful for getting into the head of the person you’re writing about.

Take an hour or so, sit down with your character, and ask them these questions. Don’t think too hard about the answers, try to switch off and let them do the talking. It’s fascinating what they come up with. If you have a go, post your answers in the comments section! Oh, and there’s also a version of this on Vanity Fair’s website which tells you which luminary you most resemble. Fun!

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2. What is your greatest fear?
3. Which historical or living figure do you most identify with?
4. Which living person do you most admire?
5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
6. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
7. What is your greatest extravagance?
8. On what occasions do you lie?
9. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
10. When and where were you happiest?
11. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
12. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
13. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
14. If you died and came back as a person or thing, what would it be?
15. What is your most treasured possession?
16. What do you regard as your lowest depth of misery?
17. Who are your heroes in real life?
18. What is it that you most dislike?
19. How would you like to die?
20. What is your motto?

And feel free to add your own questions too!

See you next week for another Workshop Wednesday (any requests for workshops, just ask in the comments below)!