When we talk about large-scale general trends, it’s important to remember that trends don’t apply to single entries in the data-set. In other words, what’s true of the group average is rarely, if ever, completely true of the individual member. Still, it can be instructive to adjust the resolution and the precision of your vision to look for insights, for the same reasons that looking at climate helps us understand the weather.
There’s no fool-proof way to fend off criticisms of “What-about-this-one?” nor do I think my observations are above criticism. What I’m sharing are only the trends I’ve noticed while literally mowing my lawn. I have neither the time nor inclination to do a full statistical analysis. Therefore, the utility of these observations will vary depending on your own personal reading or writing habits, desires, and tastes.
There has been some criticism lately of NoSleep stories losing their “raw-edge” or something to that effect. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the structures of stories, so those feelings aren’t generally well-articulated. When a large group expresses the same opinion, however, there is usually something at the root of that opinion.
With that introduction, here are what I’ve noticed to be the elements of a “Classic NoSleep Story:”
1. Classic NoSLeep Stories are Experience-Shaped rather than Narrative-Shaped
A narrative-shaped story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It contains internal logic. It will answer certain questions of “why is this happening to this particular person?” “what does this mean?” and “why is this important?” In other words, narratives have a “point” beyond “this is what happened.”
An experience-shaped story is relational and assumptive. It depends heavily on your assumed previous knowledge. When your neighbor leans over the fence and tells you about something funny that happened at the lake, assumptions are made that you already know a lot about the people involved. Elements of the story don’t need to spelled-out because what is related is assumed to be common. The interesting bits are emphasized above the boring bits, and may even be out of order with the boring bits because an intimacy is assumed that you’ll be able to put them in place based on prior understanding.
In Classic NoSleep, we don’t need a traditional build and climax to a resolution. The web of connections in the story has a single emotional point. The emotional point is the terror. It’s assumed you know the the narrator is a person and that they have a life outside the story, but the terror is the point of the story. Classic NoSleep is “raw” because the terrifying experience is given the highest importance.
The rest of the story outside of the terror does not serve the point of the story. The story apart from the terror is only a chassis for the terror. The chassis needs to be steady and serve its job, but that’s all. The stories are mundane until we hit a single sharp note of terror. It’s the same as when your neighbor, or close friend, or relative tells you a scary story. You already know how human-lives are shaped so they can make skip over all of that to emphasize the important part. In this case, the important part is the terror.
Simply put: A narrative-shaped story is shaped the way that people write. An experience-shaped story is shaped the way that people talk to someone they know.
2. There is No Symmetry between the Point of View Character and the Plot
A main character is a person the story is about. A protagonist is a character that drives the action. In a narrative-shaped story that usually creates symmetry between the character and what is happening. Classic NoSleep stories don’t have either. Because the stories are experience-shaped, we only have a Point of View character. If there is any main character at all, the main character is the terror.
In a narrative-shaped story, there’s a reason why we’re viewing the story through the eyes of the point of view character. As stated above, usually that character is either the main character and/or the protagonist. There’s something in their past they need to resolve, or something in their character that needs to change, and for that reason that character and ONLY that character is the appropriate person to share the story.
In Classic NoSleep, the point of view characters pops into frame from out of nowhere, relates the most interesting and out-of-the-ordinary part of the story, and disappears. We needed their eyes because they happened to be near the terror. It’s more eye-witness to a crime than sage come down from the mountain to give meaning or person taking control of their life because of “reasons.”
The narrator, like the other elements, are only a chassis for the terror. It’s understood we know they’re human. The narrator is just like us. In fact, they could BE us. We’re meant to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and walk around a bit.
3. The Symmetry Exists Between the Terror and the Experience
In a narrative-shaped story we have a symmetry between the main character and the events. Somehow the events are related to the protagonist, however subtle. All the build up and climax is based on that character’s relationship to the “point” of the story.
In Classic NoSleep, the symmetry is between the terror and the experience. Other emotions are muted, or exist solely to enhance the terror. If there is love, then what is loved is put at stake. If something is appreciated, then what made it worthy of appreciation is put at stake. If there’s friendship, the friendship will be somehow terrifying, etc.
Most of all, the terror is introduced with agonizing slowness. Our terror builds as the terrifying experience is related. The terror does not come all at once, because the experience is not related all at once. It takes time. Moreover, the narrator’s emotional response to the terror increases as the story progresses. We get a taste of the terror and then the terror begins to mount. The terror builds and builds and builds…
4. Terror Rises and is Never Released
At the pinnacle of terror, it is erased or vanished into mystery. Mystery meaning we don’t understand the entirety of what happened in a way that makes the terror explicable. The terror is left as inexplicable. It is not released. The narrator is left with the terror and no outlet. The point of view character is left with no meaning, no next steps, or way forward. The protagonist only has a scar, physical or emotional that they have to share with the world. In fact the story itself is the only outlet.
5. All Classic NoSleep Stories are Thematically Connected by Chaos
All the above conspire to create a thematic relatedness to Classic NoSleep stories. They’re all stories about people facing chaos, failing to find order, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Something terrible happened, no one caused it to happen, and above all no one understands why it happened or what to do to stop it from happening again. The stories all reflect on the unknown and uncontrollable elements of life.
More, because all these stories are told in the first person, there’s an undercurrent of the therapeutic to them. The heroes are all lost and lonely, wanting to find someone who might understand them. It’s built into the structure that someone has come from out of the night, to share a bit of what scares them with the community. The stories themselves long for community and connection because the protagonist has evidenced to themselves in the telling that they are not capable of facing the chaos alone.
6. It’s Always Worse Than You Thought
The stories generally end on a chilling note, pointing to some part of the experience that is unresolved or deeper than previously believed. The haunted place is still haunted, and the narrator can’t warn people away. The monster has moved on and the narrator has no idea where it has gone. The narrator realizes they have in some way become infected by the evil and can’t trust themselves any longer, or a new dimension is opened up to the suffering, etc.
In whatever case, the narrator is worse for the wear. It’s not quite a twist-ending, but perhaps a cousin to a twist-ending. It’s a revelation that the narrator was in some way protected by their ignorance, and that with the loss of this ignorance their perspective has changed. With this new perspective, the narrator is allowed to see the terror was deeper than they understood before. Lastly, the narrator understands they are not able to return to their state of ignorance.