An Introduction to Writing the Paranormal Novel & Supernatural Elements

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Want to learn the difference between a paranormal novel and a story with a supernatural element? Today’s tip of the day from Writing the Paranormal Novel answers this question and others you might have about writing paranormal books. In the excerpt below, from chapter one, author Steven Harper explains what a paranormal book is and why supernatural stories are so fascinating to read.

Just What is a Paranormal Book, Anyway?

If you want to write science fiction—bear with me here—you have to create a story with some piece of extrapolated science (such as dinosaur cloning or the ability to zap a corpse back to life) that’s so integral to the plot, you can’t remove it without destroying the story. Remove the cloned dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, and you have no story. Remove the reanimated dead from Frankenstein, and you have no story. Science is the element that makes these novels into science fiction instead of, say, adventure or romance.

Paranormal novels work the same way. You need some element of magic or the supernatural that’s so deeply integral to the story that the entire novel would collapse if you removed it. Try removing the supernatural element from Dracula and see how far you get. The book has a romance, but without the vampire count to move things along, author Bram Stoker would have no story. On the other hand, if you’re protagonist’s werewolf boyfriend could just as easily be a muscular guy who loses his temper once a month right around the time he needs a haircut, you aren’t writing a paranormal novel, you’re probably writing a romance with supernatural trappings—and your readers will see right through it.

People have been telling supernatural stories from the beginning of human civilization. Such stories form the basis of every mythology that ever existed. These tales explain how the world came to exist, why we have earthquakes, who stole fire from the gods, where people go when they die, or anything else that needed explaining. Other supernatural stories spin grand adventures of bold heroes: Odysseus and Gilgamesh and Aladdin. And it wasn’t just the stories themselves that endured—the concepts remained as well. Who doesn’t want to be swept away from this dull, mundane world to a wondrous, magical land? Who hasn’t fantasized about finding a magical object of great power and having fun with it? These and other supernatural concepts have hung on for generations for one reason: They’re fun to think about.

What Do Paranormal Novels Do For Us?

Supernatural stories feed the human desire for escape. We can pretend we’re riding that magic carpet, making those three wishes, or swinging that sword because we know (deep sigh) it’s never going to happen for real.

The idea of uncovering the supernatural in your own yard is irresistible. Supernatural stories originally took place Long Ago and Far Away. This lent the stories a certain amount of—believe it or not—realism. In a time when the average person never traveled more than four or five miles from home, it was easier to suspend disbelief if the story took place halfway around the globe. Anything can happen in a place you’ve never heard of! But eventually humans invented mass communication. The world shrank, and the universe Out There became less mystical. As a result, storytellers started slipping supernatural elements into their own backyards.

In supernatural stories, you don’t need to look Long Ago or even Far Away to find adventure. You can stroll down the sidewalk or wander off the back porch. The contrast of the unknown magical with the well-worn mundane provides the charm. Winged horses and flying carpets are fun, sure, but when most people spend their time stuck in automobile traffic, a flying car sounds a lot more interesting. Heck, maybe you, the reader will find one next.

On that note, I should let you know that this book will focus mostly on writing novels set primarily in our world, either past or present, or on novels that use characters from our world that travel to supernatural places. Although it’s a supernatural genre, we’ll only be making brief detours into high fantasy. If you want to write novels about armored warriors or powerful sorcerers who fight fantastic creatures in a society that never intersects with our own, you might want to check out Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, also from Writer’s Digest Books.

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