Horror Writers Association Blog

Interview with Horror University instructor Gretchen McNeil


Number five in our series of StokerCon 2017 Horror University instructor interviews is all about bestselling author Gretchen McNeil!

Gretchen McNeil: Character-Driven Plotting and the 3-Act Horror Novel  

Have you read Save the Cat? Have you poured over Story? Can you quote passages from The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Writer’s Journey, and Story Engineering? Are you looking for a new approach to plot? If your answer to these questions is “YES” then Gretchen McNeil would love to introduce you to Constantin Stanislavski. Known as the godfather of modern acting techniques, Stanislavski’s approach to character reaches far beyond the acting stage. Gretchen will demonstrate how she uses Stanislavski’s fundamental questions, super-imposed upon 3-Act Structure, to plot her young adult horror novels. The class includes a lecture, exercises and a crowd-sourced plot demonstration.

Gretchen McNeil is an opera singer, writer and clown. Her YA horror Possess about a teen exorcist debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011. Gretchen’s follow up Ten – YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer – was a 2013 YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, a Romantic Times Top Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Horror Fiction for Youth, a finalist for Washington state’s 2015 Evergreen Young Adult Book Award and Vermont’s 2014-2015 Green Mountain Book Award, and was nominated for “Best Young Adult Contemporary Novel of 2012” by Romantic Times. In 2013, she released 3:59, a sci-fi doppelganger horror about two girls who are the same girl in parallel dimensions who decide to switch places. In 2014, Gretchen debuted her first series, Don’t Get Mad, also with Balzer + Bray. Get Even and Get Dirty follow four very different girls who form a secret society where they get revenge on bullies and mean girls at their elite prep school. Relic was released March 8, 2016 and I’m Not your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a YA contemporary novel will be out in the fall. Gretchen’s novels have been optioned by Hollywood production companies, and have sold internationally in Chinese, Spanish and Turkish.


Tell us something about your Horror University workshop that is not in the original description.

As a trained opera singer, I’ve been amazed at how my stage training has helped me both plot and write my novels.  The Stanislavski Technique – a long time staple of the acting world, popularized in the 20th century through the teachings of Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler – can be a vital tool to help writers both plot their novels and full realize their characters.

What skills or achievements make you ideally suited to lead this workshop?

I have a BA in Vocal Performance from UCLA and a MM in Opera Performance from the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, College Park, and studied the Stanislavski Technique throughout my opera education.  I have used aspects of this technique to plot all eight of my novels, and I have taught seminars and workshops on how writers can use this technique in combination with a traditional three-act structure to approach novel writing from a new angle.

Why do you feel that your workshop subject is especially important?

One of my biggest pet peeves in a book are characters who act without proper motivation.  WHY would your character make that choice?  And why NOW?  What do they hope to gain?  How is that directly related to the main story arc?  Too often, the answers to those questions reveal flimsy motivations, which weaken both the character and the reader’s experience.  At every moment in your novel, you must know exactly what your character hopes to gain, and you must show the reader that motivation.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to teach you how!

If you could participate in one other Horror University workshop, which one would you choose and why?

I’d love to attend Tim Waggoner’s session “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Horror.”  I worry about falling into a rut with my own writing, and of being derivative, and I bet his workshop would help me overcome both!

Do you approach the craft of writing horror differently from other genres?

Absolutely.  Unlike other genres I write in – mystery/suspense and contemporary comedy – the tone of horror is so utterly intrinsic to the story!  It’s practically a character in itself.  Plus, in addition to plot and traditional characters, in horror you’re crafting specific moments that must built upon each other, guilding to the reader to your ultimate climax.  It’s not just “scares” – you’re crafting a state of mind.

Apart from teaching your workshop, what are you most looking forward to at StokerCon?

As with every conference I attend, my favorite part is meeting other writers.  Traditionally published, indie published, pre-published – writers are my family.  And I love being surrounded by them.  Plus, at StokerCon, I have the added bonus of rubbing elbows with like-minded horror fans!  How cool is that?

What do you most hope that those attending your workshop take away from it?

I hope my workshop helps writers see their manuscripts in an unexpected way.  I know from my own writing that sometimes when I’m stuck, I just need to look at the novel with new eyes.  That perspective can be golden.

StokerCon 2017 will be happening from April 27th to April 30th aboard the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. For more information or to purchase tickets, please click here.

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