Storyville: Writing Horror Stories
In my opinion, two of the hardest genres to write are horror and comedy. Why? Because both are so subjective. What might make one person laugh will leave another unaffected, and what will scare the hell out of one person will leave another bored. So know that you are taking on a difficult task when writing horror. But as there are millions of books sold every year by the masters of the genre, there is obviously an audience for dark fiction. In this month's column I’ll try to share some of my experiences with writing horror, and hopefully give you some good advice on how to craft your horrific tales.
In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he says that the only way to be a real writer is “to read a lot and write a lot.” And it’s that way with horror, as it is with any other genre. You must be familiar with those that came before you, the classics as well as contemporary authors. So take a moment to think about what names pop into your head when you think of horror. I of course think of the aforementioned Stephen King, the best selling horror author of all time. I grew up reading King and believe that if you want to be a great storyteller, you could do worse than to familiarize yourself with his work. Not all of his novels are what I’d call horror, though, or at least, the classic definition of horror. But I can remember being terrified while reading The Shining as a young boy, and other books like Salem’s Lot, The Long Walk, Pet Sematary, and It certainly have moments of terror. Some other names that come to mind are Clive Barker, for his violence and lyrical prose, Peter Straub, for his intelligence and literary voice, and Jack Ketchum, for his unwillingness to look away. Richard Laymon, Shirley Jackson, F. Paul Wilson, V. C. Andrews, Robert McCammon, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Poppy Z. Brite, Richard Matheson, and H. P. Lovecraft—the list is endless. And don’t sleep on lesser known authors like Stephen Graham Jones, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Damien Angelica Walters, and Kristi DeMeester, either. Just browse the horror section of your local bookstore, or see what Amazon suggests in relationship to your past purchases, or ask your friends. The bottom line is that you need to see what has come before you, study it, and then find a way to create your own voice.
When it comes to horror, you also need to think about what kind of story you want to tell. A common link across the wide range of horror stories out there is the idea of something being scary. A situation, creature, or event that is terrifying, unique, and unsettling. You need to think about how you want to scare people. Are you hoping to tap into primal fears, and by illustrating these common, everyday horrors, frighten your audience by reminding them of what darkness is around them at all times? Maybe you are looking for psychological horror then, a story that is the adding up of information to create a larger picture. Do you want to show horrific events, including all of the blood, gore, and physical violence that comes with those moments? Then maybe you are looking to write splatterpunk, or graphic horror. Are you looking to build a world of zombies, to tell a story about something that lurks in the pond, in the woods, in the basement? Is there a component of sex, lust and the erotic that is important to your work? Or do you like to write about bizarre situations, events and people? The surreal? Just be aware of what you are doing, and then go back and study the masters of those individual styles. You don’t always have to write the same kind of horror story, but just keep in mind your goals when sitting down to write.
When I think about classic and contemporary horror films and novels, the one thing that always comes to mind is tension. This will be a crucial part of your stories and novels. And in order to create tension, you must understand the difference between terror and horror. If terror is a feeling of dread, then horror is a feeling of disgust. By mixing these two sensations together, you should be able to set your audience up for some really intense moments. And how do you do that?
Tension is a combination of things, and we’ll probably go in circles a bit here as the column continues, as all of these components are connected. You need a character (or characters) that you care about. You need a setting that is atmospheric, creepy, and layered in unease and worry. You need something to be at risk, as little as a hand of cards, or as much as somebody’s life. Or maybe the whole world. The scope of your work, that’s up to you. But if you show us real people, involved in situations that people can relate to, your audience will follow you anywhere. You need to speak about emotional truths, because it doesn’t matter if it is a demon, a werewolf, a vampire or an alien, we need to be able to relate to the characters that are stuck in a difficult situation, and if we have sympathy for them, we will root for them to survive.
When creating tension, you want to show the audience (or hint at) something that is coming. You may show the audience something that the protagonist doesn’t see, perhaps the label on a bottle, the eyes glowing in the dark closet, the loaded gun under a pillow. Or, you can clue in your damsel in distress or reluctant hero at the same time with a visit from a policeman telling them that the phone calls were coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.
The tension you create can be slow or fast, it’s up to you. You can slowly reveal small clues that will add up to something larger, a revelation or epiphany. OR, you may want to show us the danger right up front, tell the audience that there is a beast in the forest, look at those giant hoof prints in the dirt.
However you create your tension, be sure to alternate it with down time, quiet moments where your character (and the audience) can take a breath, reveal back story, and calm down, before you take them on a rollercoaster ride again. You can’t just hit the same note over and over, or it loses its effect.
(NOTE: I've since expanded this topic into its own complete column. You can read that here.)
Another crucial part of your story, and not just horror stories, but especially horror stories, is your setting. What will add to the drama and tension? If the roads are wet, if it’s raining, if there is a snowstorm on the way, trapping your cast of delinquent characters, if it’s dark outside, when they need the light to find the car keys they just lost, all of that will add to the tension. Use all of the five senses, not just what they see, but the sounds that come from the forest, or the basement, the smells and scents of something rotting, even the taste of a cup of coffee that is now bitter, the poison slowly seeping into your system. Give the audience enough detail to see what is going on, but don’t get too bogged down in the details. They need something to latch onto, but give them some room to assign their own histories, so that they can fill in the gaps, and make the experience their own.
CARING ABOUT CHARACTERS
We touched on the need to care about characters earlier, but I want to expand on this a bit. Whether you are rooting for the young girl to survive, or the bad guy to get his justice, you have to care about these people. Love and hate are both strong emotions, but they are closer to each other than they are to apathy. You don’t want an indifferent audience. How do you get your reader to care? Show them a good person stuck in a bad situation. Show them somebody who has been wronged, either earlier in life, or repeatedly over time, so that the sense of what is fair and what is unfair, will rise to the surface. You want your heroes to win, and your demons to be killed. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend pages and pages on back story. Just show a pretty girl trying to fill up her gas tank, an independent mother, who is always being treated as less than an equal by the men around her. And don’t be afraid to show us flawed characters as well. Your protagonist can be an alcoholic, a liar, even a serial killer, and if you do it right, we’ll still root for them.
WHAT SCARES YOU
One of the best ways to mix up everything we’ve talked about so far is to think about what scares you, the author, the most. I’ve often tapped into my fears of losing my family, of failing, being alone, as themes and situations that scare me. I’m also scared of demons and anything with a cloven hoof. Again, it’s all relative. I thought the movie The Blair Witch Project was terrifying at the end, but many laughed. It’s very subjective. People with a fear of clowns may think that It by Stephen King is particularly frightening. Tap into those fears, because it will come across on the page, whether it is spiders, snakes, ghosts, the woods, drowning, fire, the dark, or the unknown.
TWISTS AND REVELATIONS
One of the classic ways to create a terrifying story or novel is to have everything add up to one moment, one realization, one twist that brings your story full circle. Soylent green IS people, and the person you thought was alive, was really dead, the phone calls were coming from inside the house, the rabbit they were eating was really human flesh. It’s up to you, but a lot of great stories and novels will add up to a large revelation. But be careful of twists, because if the whole story is relying on that last twist, that one phrase, then you won’t have much re-read value, and wouldn’t you rather have people read your stories (or novels) over and over again? One way to avoid that is to have your protagonist(s) come to a revelation that will impact how they save the world, or how they get out of a tough situation, as opposed to the entire novel hinging on a sentence, paragraph or page. Let them discover these things, and then react. Or, even better, have smaller revelations across the entire novel, the epiphanies allowing your cast, crew or ka-tet to survive whatever ordeal is in front of them.
There is no magic formula for writing horror stories, but if you play around with the tools I’ve given you here, you should be able to write a scary story. Give us a creepy setting, using all of the five senses, with characters we care about and can root for (or against), mix in some dark force or unsettling phenomenon, put something at risk, build that conflict up and then allow us to follow these brave and damaged fools to hell and back, and you’ll keep your audience entertained, hopefully on the edge of their seat. Good luck.
Instead of stories, this week, I wanted to list the three books that I think are the most horrific books I've ever read. As mentioned before, The Shining by Stephen King, somehow that book seeped into my skin, and really made me afraid to turn off the lights. It's one of King's best books, in my opinion. Another, is Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. It's such a tense story, so hard to watch, but masterfully done. And the third is by an author that probably isn't even considered a horror writer, but the book was so intense I have to list it here. I'm talking about American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. It is one of the most unnerving, upsetting books I've ever read, the only printed words to ever make me gag. See below for the links. Enjoy! And leave the lights on maybe, yeah?
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Great article. For me, it was King's Pet Semetary, Barker's The Books Of Blood Volume 1, and Blackwood's The Wendigo.
And, when I was way to young to be reading it, the novelization of Friday The Thirteenth, Part III. But, would you believe I haven't returned to that one for rereading...?
Fantastic article; for anyone who is a fan of writers like Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany, you owe it to yourself to check out the work of Clark Ashton Smith, one of the more overlooked but truly magnetizing writers of "weird fiction" at the time.
I hit the Post button, twice, because it took a while to upload and, now, I can't delete this second post. Oh, well. Anyway, again, Thanks for your article! It's very insightful and makes me even more interested in reading and writing in the horror genre. Also realized, what was holding me back from writing in this genre was the very essence of what makes horror worthwhile: fear. I've learned to control my fear and keep my hyper-imagination in check. With that dragon "slain," I feel I can, now, write in the genre and enjoy it. A good scare isn't all that bad. It's quite fun. I like adrenaline, but, for me, the best adrenaline rush is reading a good horror story or horror novel.
So, Thanks again & Cheers!
Excellent points all! I have found that it is also very worthwhile in addition to studying the classic authors to study the authors they read. Recently I have been reading a book that is a collection of stories that H.P. Lovecraft mentions in his famous essay on horror (what he termed "weird fiction"). These include authors that were popular in his time or before and that our time probably has forgotten: Edward Lucas White, Arthur Machen, Guy de Maupassant and Stephen Crane (both of whom are primarily known now for their more "classical literary" works now), and many others.
thanks for the kind words, phil. and excellent suggestion.