R.L. Stine's MasterClass | A Review
From Goosebumps to teacher. Worth the watch for sure.
In two days I binged 28 Lessons, 233 minutes worth, of R.L. Stine’s MasterClass. And it was amazing! Let’s get that out of the way first. I will caveat my initial impressions with the fact that I grew up reading Goosebumps and not only do I still own the first editions of the original series, but I met him at a book signing many years ago and he signed ‘Welcome to the Dead House!’ Yeah, I freaked and geeked on that day!
But let me break down what I liked so much about this MasterClass and why.
PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
If you want to write for MG (Middle Grade) or YA (Young Adult) then this MasterClass might be for you. I say ‘might’ because R.L. Stine rights horror in both of those age groups and while his MasterClass can be applied to any MG or YA genre, this is mostly about horror and how to scare. Taking that into account, what this promises, which is to give you the tools (and confidence) you’ll need to write a story, is all here. But remember it’s from his point of view. That means these lessons and advice are how he works and what works for him, which may not work for you. I appreciated that he did include other authors who are completely different from his style who are just as successful as he is. You decide what works for you in order to tell your story.
There is a lot of frankness to his approach in teaching and he always makes sure to remind you that some things just can’t be taught, it comes on instinct and experience. Like his “Idea Store” that involves Experience, Memory, and Imagination. These are things inherent in all of us and how we go about using these sections of the Idea Store is up to us.
WHAT WE HAVE IN COMMON
It was shortly after Stine went into describing The Idea store that the similarities between his writing style and my own became evident. Like the fact that he starts with a title! He said it’s just how he works. He thinks of a great title and from that title comes to a story that he then runs home to sit down and get it all down on paper. Even his outlining style is very similar to my own. He will first jot down some preliminary notes about the characters and the plot. This is very similar to what I call my simple outline. Then he will go back over it and really outline each chapter, making sure they end with a cliffhanger. All of his chapters end in a cliffhanger. While all of my chapters probably don’t end in a cliffhanger (but I’m considering adding this to my process when outlining) I do develop my outlines into individual chapters. And he does this for the same reason that I do: No Writers Block! I’m skipping around here a bit since he doesn’t go into writer’s block till the end of the course but I reject this idea that it exists the same way he does. How can writer’s block exist in my world if I have an outline? As long as I have my outline then I always have something to write. My story always has someplace to go. There is always the next chapter to write.
There’s something about getting to know the behind-the-scenes real world of a living author who you admire that can be very inspiring. Sometimes, however, it can be a letdown. I’m glad in this case it wasn’t!
I definitely learned a lot about storytelling from this MasterClass. Stine used tons of examples when discussing how he landed on MG for Goosebumps and YA for Fear Street with his two most popular series. He helped me think through if I’d even consider writing for MG or YA in the future and if so, how I might go about doing that. In many ways, using the tips of knowing your audience, how far you can go based on the age of the reader, and understanding where the money is coming from when sales happen is true with any age group reader. One thing I did find fascinating, even though it’s a well-known fact these days, is that 40% of YA readers are adult women! Something to remember when writing for YA that it’s not just 12 - 18 like it used to be. YA is now considered just 12+.
Something else I learned and want to implement into my own writing is the idea of cliffhangers, surprise endings, and planting false clues in the story. There is a lot of power in being able to throw the reader off and if I can do that, maybe not in every chapter but in every other or at least more often than I probably do now? I think that would be a great tool to add to my toolbox.
He also talked a bit about POV. This is something I always struggle with. I want to write every story idea I come up with in first-person. But the moment I start I falter because the main character just can’t be in every scene I want to write. He gives some advice on how to get over that hurdle and he also gives some pretty compelling arguments as to why first-person is really the only POV that should be used when it comes to writing thrillers or horror. It’s because the reader is closer to the main character when it’s told from the “I” POV rather than the “he/she” third-person POV.
There is so much more to unpack in this MasterClass but you should just go watch it yourself to really get anything out of it. The final thought I will leave is advice that I think all writers give to other writers: READ! To learn the essentials of storytelling he gives the following piece of advice:
Learn how to write horror from Ray Bradbury. Specifically, his book Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Learn plot from Agatha Christie. Any of her books will provide you with the tools you need to learn not only the basic structure of beginning, middle, and ending for a good story, but she also is the master of mystery for a reason and any good story (even one not in that genre) should be dripping in mystery. The one he mentions specifically for this example is Sparkling Cyanide.
Learn creepy from the master of Adult horror Stephen King. He mentions Pet Sematary specifically but in the list of R.L. Stine’s 50 Favorite Books (included in the Course Guide that comes with the MasterClass), Misery, and The Shining.
He also mentioned one show he watched all the time that was a great influence on him, The Twilight Zone. I recommend watching this show as well (or rewatching) for not only inspiration but ideas. Take them from anywhere. Ideas are everywhere.