By Stephen Volk
“Aha!” moments are rare, but they happen. And when they do they’re the most weird and rewarding of writing experiences, because the truth seems to come not from figuring out stuff, or even from something deep within the writer, but something palpably outside.
Case in point.
I was writing a screenplay called “Natural Father” about an estranged daughter seeking out her biological dad. The daughter, late teens, is fairly disturbed and pretty volatile. In the course of my story – a psycho thriller – she goes from nice ‘n’ needy to Glenn Close.
But here’s the thing. I had a scene where she goes to the school of her dad’s little boy. Her step-brother, if you will. And I had her walk in and confront the kid in class. So she walks in and the teacher tells her to leave. He politely asks her to go, and touches her arm. And she explodes. She tells him to fucking get off her.
Shit! Where did that come from? I had no idea…
I kept writing. What does she do next? She goes to the bathroom and starts washing herself, really scrubbing herself hard. And I had no idea why she was doing that. I was describing it and it felt real, but I didn’t have any answers why that was her behaviour in that moment.
Then I did. Oh God. Did I ever. She was telling me what had happened, and my heart was beating a little faster at the revelation.
Why the hell didn’t I see the signs? She was desperate to find her real Dad. She hero worships him. He’s perfect. She’s desperate for his affection, but the minute she thinks she’ll be rejected by him, she mouths off and runs. What’s more, she’s more than just sexually active for an eighteen-year old, she’s absolutely promiscuous in the script I’d written so far. And now I knew why.
She was telling me she’d been abused by her stepfather, the useless guy her Mom had shacked up with. A guy in a scene I’d already written twenty pages earlier. It was all so blindingly obvious now. That’s why she’d left her home on this quest. It was why she had such an explosive relationship with her mother. It all made sense.
Not pleasant sense, but sense nevertheless. And one thing I do know – when you touch upon something that feels like the core of your character’s motivation, cling to it like a drowning man to driftwood.
Because somehow those “Aha!” moments that come from “elsewhere” are always the things that click, that gel. The mysterious components of the story that become so essential, you wonder how you could have embarked upon the thing without knowing them.
Or maybe on one level, you did all along.
Stephen Volk is best known as the creator of the paranormal drama series Afterlife, the notorious BBCTV "Halloween hoax" Ghostwatch and the recent feature film The Awakening. His other screenplays include Ken Russell's Gothic and The Guardian directed by William Friedkin. His short stories have appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and Best British Mysteries, and he has been a finalist for the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards. His latest novella is Whitstable from Spectral Press. More information, go here or here.