Whew, that’s a mouthful of a title. But I’m serious. Caitlin Starling’s THE LUMINOUS DEAD (TLD) is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read. And you should read it too. It’s going to be hard if you don’t like psychological horror, but it will be so worth it if you read it. Why? Because it’s a great example of writing with emotion, a modified Save the Cat structure (horror needs it), and it’s a dead ringer for a lot of the advice in WRITING IN THE DARK. I don’t know if Starling read or looked at these, so this is all my opinion.
But that’s right. The book is a triple threat.
Let’s break it down.
Writing with Emotion
I have a feeling that if you crack open any writing help book somewhere in the pages you’ll find something about emotion. Hell, Maass has a whole book about it. It could honestly be considered the bread and butter of every writer because it is needed for every genre. People feel all the time (I argue that being numb is even on this spectrum because you know what you’re lacking) and this should translate into characters as well.
Starling does this amazingly well in TLD. You follow Gyre (the main character–who I do wonder if she is named after a gyroscope) closely as she dives deeper and deeper into the cave and through the use of tight, controlled prose Starling brings Gyre’s emotions to life. The reader, you if you so choose, is thrown into Gyre’s fear and trepidation. Her wants and her drive to continue. Starling creates an atmosphere that is rich with feeling. Anyone who has read this book that I’ve talked to has talked about how it gripped them and the fear they felt while reading.
Want it to be even creepier? Listen to the audiobook. I’ve read and listened to it and both are amazing.
Save the Cat
I’m gonna be up front about this. For the longest time I avoided reading Save the Cat because I dislike craft books. It boils down to not liking being told what to do when I know there are no set rules. And it’s a little bit born from stubbornness. Okay, maybe a lot. But, I was struggling to get back into writing after the death of my brother. Hard, is an understatement. I felt like I had no idea what to do, where to start, or how words worked together.
So I swallowed my dislike and picked up Save the Cat. Why that book in particular? It had been recommended a lot in the different writing circles I am in. I won’t say it’s a magic cure. I actually didn’t find it all that helpful at first for writing horror, but…after it broke down a horror example with it’s fifteen step process…yeah okay, it works.
Here are the (spark note) steps that relate to the first few chapters I’ll cover below:
- Opening image: a “before” snapshot of your hero and their world.
-This is the first scene or chapter of your novel.
-Sets tone, style, and mood
-Show the flaws screwing up the hero’s life
- Theme stated: A statement made by a character (not the hero) that hints at what the hero’s arc will be (that is, what the hero must learn/discover before the end of the book)
-Alludes to the transformative journey that your hero will take and the flaw or flaws they will eventually conquer
-single scene beat (stated, then the story moves on)
-hero ignores the theme stated
- Setup: An exploration of the hero’s status quo life and all its flaws, where we learn what the hero’s life looks like before its epic transformation. Here we also introduce other supporting characters and the hero’s primary goal. But most important, we show the hero’s reluctance to change while also hinting at the stakes at risk should the hero not change.
-sets up hero’s life and their status quo world
-set up what kind of person your character is, talk about the goal/want (what they think will fix their life)
-introduce all characters
-show flaws in all their glory and how they affect the hero’s life
-Somewhere within the setup beat is the status = death moment. Change is imperative; otherwise things are going to go south.
- Catalyst: An inciting incident (or life-changing event) that happens to the hero, which will catapult them into a new world or new way of thinking. An action beat that should be big enough to prevent the hero from being able to return to their status quo.
-crash lands in the hero’s life and creates so much destruction the hero has no choice but to do something different
-usually come as bad news (a reader wants action, twist, drama)
-happens to the hero
I’m going o break down the first few chapters of TLD and also how it works with WRITING IN THE DARK.
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD
Meet Gyre and sets up setting and how expeditions are normally done
Get a sense of Gyre’s personality
This follows beat 1 of Save the Cat to a T. Starling sets up what is normal for Gyre to slowly ease the reader into the world. This is also advice from WRITING IN THE DARK.
Learn it is just Em, also learn Em’s name and Gyre introduces herself
Get a feel for Em’s personality and how Gyre reacts to things (anger, body autonomy – this changes through the book)
Mention of Mother
This is a mix of beat 1 and 2 with the introduction of all major characters plus a hint towards the theme.
Gyre questions why she’s down there if Em isn’t going to sell the cave
Gyre doesn’t push due to her goal (fake goal – not the one about her mother)
First sign of danger – foot slip
Second danger – sees Ely, doesn’t realize it’s him or a human
Finds first dead body – emotional reaction present
More of Em and Gyre’s personalities and them being at odds (Gyre wants to return to the surface, Em
convinces her to continue due to Gyre lying about her experience)
Em’s goal is stated – this and the above point are the Inciting Incident (30 pages in)
Gyre’s goal is stated
This chapter packs a punch of hitting beats 2 and 3 as well as playing with a second inciting incident or the first shoe drop, however you want to think of it. Starling does really phenomenal job with the emotions in this chapter and really apps up the creep factor in steady increments, which is mentioned in WRITING IN THE DARK.
Danger in Gyre diving (never done it before)
Em tells Gyre she has tried 35 times – hints at her parents expedition and only 1 making it out
This chapter takes a bit of a breather and sets up a new normal for the two characters as well as ramping up the tension. This is straight out of WRITING IN THE DARK to help the reader along.
They start to banter
Gyre dives – Success! (false positive as reader thinks everything will go well)
Another piece straight out of WRITING IN THE DARK. The false promise of success is a great way to build up emotion in the reader, have it pay off and then….drop them straight back down. Doing something like this may seem cruel (especially to the characters) but if the book was only positive things or conversely all negative, then it feels like there is either plot armor around the characters or you’re reading a manifesto of depression. Having the ups and downs mimics real life and brings to life the setting and characters.
This has been long, so I’ll end it with a few brief notes. TLD is an amazing book by itself, not considering all of this. The characters are real and the emotions are high. Starling may not have used Save the Cat or WRITING IN THE DARK, but the book is a glowing example of both. And an absolutely glowing example of psychological horror. Do yourself a favor and pick it up. And enjoy your stumble down into the cave.