4 Things Horror Writers Should Do

I’m not normally in a “telling others how to go about their business” mode. I figure if it would drive me up the wall, I shouldn’t do it. On the other hand, reading those kinds of articles sometimes gets me thinking, or makes me say “Hunh. That’s actually a good idea. Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

In the hopes of being “sooner” for at least a few folks out there, I present the following four suggestions.

1. Know Yourself

broken mirror

Before you can set out in an attempt to scare someone else, you need to scare yourself. You have to dig into your subconscious, stare into the mirror long enough that your own reflection starts looking wonky, then grab that little puling worm that just crawled from your underbrain and put it to work.

Sure, not everyone is going to be scared by the same things you are. Some people will look at the treasure you just pulled from your id’s fight or flight response and laugh. But writing is distilling emotion. If you don’t feel that emotion yourself, how can you hope to convey it to others?

2. Escalation

Stephen King has a lovely little quote about types of horror and suspense. He says there’s three basic kinds, all appealing to different aspects of our fear centers. While I don’t disagree, I think there’s also scales; jumping from the Gross-Out right to Terror without any time to build up or anticipate what’s coming defeats the purpose, because the body – and thus the mind – never has time to start to relax, to think that initial pulse of worry was just a glitch. Keeping the reader “up” like that eventually is going to have the effect precisely opposite of what you want: they’ll get bored of being scared. The adrenaline will pass through their system, the tension will become their default state, and you essentially reset all their mental circuitry. Then nothing is going to have an impact.

woman in blackA lot of modern horror work, regardless if it’s a movie, a book or a video game, seems to forget this. They have discarded the notion of pacing, of the refractory period between scares. It’s one of the reasons I love Woman in Black (aside from Harry Po… I mean, Daniel Radcliffe, proving he can do more than wizarding), because it leads you down a breadcrumb trail, gives you some hint of something spooky, then pulls back a bit and lets you process it. Just about the time you’ve decided it was nothing, it creeps up and hits you again. And again. And one more time, just to be sure you’re still paying attention. The pacing and atmosphere made that movie work – even if the ending was a little lackluster and the final payoff was perhaps not worth it – and is something to be studied and emulated.

Leave your own breadcrumbs. Strange bug infestation? Let the characters see a millipede or two in the bathtub. That’ll freak ’em out! Then the bugs get washed down the drain, the cans of Raid come out, all is supposedly normal. Then the kids find a spider-nest under the bed. Call the exterminator! Problem solved. Right? Well, then the cat goes missing… but surely that’s unrelated. Right? Until you find the cat with it’s innards chewed out and the vet claims it’s the result of an odd spider-venom. Keep this up. Let the newlyweds relax a little after each issue, but never all the way. Then sic the army of giant acid-spitting spiders on them. If you either threw the giant spiders at them first, or there was no refractory period between the millipedes and the first, small nest or that nest and the cat missing, or the discovery of the cat’s remains, there’s no time to process or worry about it. It’s just “Oh, it’s bug killin’ time!” and that’s no fun. Well, it could be. Under the right circumstances. But if you’re going for suspense and horror, it’s not likely to have the result you want.

 3. Expectation of Normalcy

Unless your work is dystopian or a quick funhouse ride, horror is going to be most effective when it disrupts the lives we know. Even in fantasy or sci-fi settings, part of the point is abandoning the norm, whatever it may be, for things that are unexpected, unnatural, disturbing and otherwise not “the way things should be.” To impress that on your readers, you need to have something to contrast the horrific situation with. Mind you, the “normal” situation might be horrific – or at least worrisome and disturbing – on its own, but remember that to your characters, that’s the normal world. People can learn to live with nearly anything, given time and motivation enough.

So give your characters some time and development before you throw them at the jaws of the beast or catch them in a murderous plot. Not too much; you don’t want your readers getting bored reading Peyton Place before they get to the Friday the 13th portion of your masterpiece. But enough for them to understand the characters a little, to see what they’re losing and what’s changing when the spooky stuff starts going down.

The thing that’s important about this step is don’t overdo it. There’s a video from the guys at Outside Xbox called 7 Guys Who Are Definitely Not Going To Die Immediately. Basically, if you paint everything in a character’s world as totally rosy and great – amazing wife, new baby, brand new house, just cleared of cancer – they’re obviously due for some karmic payback and are going to suffer terribly. Everyone knows this. If your book is a horror novel and you start off with a character like that, people know that person is going to get what’s coming to them. If it’s a side character, they know for sure that person is doomed. Which can be fun. But having a little ambiguity about it doesn’t hurt anyone; having them have issues or troubles that aren’t directly related – at least at first, and cue maniacal laughter, here – to your upcoming rain of frogs or whatever makes them seem more real and provides some context. If those issues can tie to your Big Bad and whatever they’re up to, even better, because taking mundane challenges and writing them large (and soaked in gore or bearing unlucky rabbit’s feet) makes them more central to the character’s eventual triumph or failure… which increases reader investment in the situation.

4. Be Uncomfortable

This is somewhat related to Suggestion #1, above. When you’re writing, sometimes the interior muse may take over and start scribbling for you. This is a beautiful, wonderful thing. What’s even better is when it does something that shocks, offends or disturbs you. Wait, who’s in charge of this show? Your subconscious, most likely. If that little gift of inspiration ends up freaking you out – perhaps to the point where you caress the “delete” key for long moments, whispering to yourself “Where in the hell did that come from?” – then you’ve found some gold. So don’t delete it. Mine it. Take that moment, and push forward with it. Don’t be afraid to be disturbed by your own work. If you’re bothered by it, that emotion is going to show through, and readers will find it easier to be disturbed by it as well.

You’re already writing horror. You’re setting out with the express intent to worry, disturb, gross-out or scare someone – and what kind of sociopathic monsters are we, anyway? Someone should be notified. We should be supervised. – so why would you stop just when you manage to perform the grandest trick and scare the crap out of yourself? You’re God, to your creations; if something is capable of upsetting God, then it should be enshrined and studied, not just cast aside without further thought.

5. Lie

Like I just did. Remember, I said there were four things? Hah!

Good horror and related fields work because they present a false facade. They make you think something is safe when it isn’t. “Don’t worry, honey. We got the house for a steal, we’ve had a team of priests to exorcise it and the best cleaning company to get rid of the blood stains!” They make you think something is dangerous when it’s harmless. “Oh, shit! Creaking floorboards, must be a prowler or the boo… oh. It’s the cat.” They flip your perception around to the point where you’re getting dizzy second guessing yourself.

Nothing is as it seems. Except what is. When your characters start having problems telling the difference is where you’ve hit the sweet spot. Unreliable narrators, internal confusion and flat-out lies told to your characters can all serve the agenda. Setting up an expectation, whether for the monster to show up or for breakfast to be delivered on time and with coffee on the side, ties back into #3 to a degree. It gives the reader – and your characters – context, lets them prepare. When the event happens (the monster strikes somewhere else, the coffee is actually tea, or the monster delivers the breakfast, bwa ha, and bet you didn’t know they have room service in hell…) and doesn’t go according to plan, it disrupts them, puts them on edge, and gives you more ways to make things uncomfortable or at least more difficult to deal with.

Lucy FootballNow, you don’t want to do that too much; like Eddie Dean in the Dark Tower says, if Lucy really wanted to mess Charlie Brown up, sometimes she’d hold the football. Because if you’re always going against expectation, you’re creating expectation for that. Which just gets boring and repetitive. So buck tradition once… then have it go according to plan twice. Then hose them three times. Then things are fine again. For a while. Then again. Keep people guessing.

Do that by presenting totally nonthreatening things as life-or-death situations. (The husband stalks the cat throughout the house, having it leap out of a cabinet in a shower of glassware with an ear-piercing yowl… maybe he swings at the animal with the bat he keeps, maybe he falls into a counter and breaks an arm, who knows. But in the end, it was just his cat being a cat.) And present your manifestations of ultimate evil in plausible, pleasant ways. (The neighbor, who you know is a Cthulhu Cultist, is totally understanding about the issues the woman of the house is having with her sister, and invites her in for a little chat and some totally-not-poisoned coffee. The first time. But the next time? Don’t drink that, it’s hemlock.)

So there you have it. My four (ha ha!) okay, five, suggestions for horror. Got some to add? Disagree? Have additional insight into one listed? Let us know in the box below!

(Also, thank you to aladywrites4u and her crack art team for designing the new logo.)

KA Spiral no signature


4 responses to “4 Things Horror Writers Should Do

  1. Point number 4 struck a chord. I don’t write horror, but occasionally include horrific things and some of them in the latest project have troubled me. But now I’m going to leave them all in.


    • I think the points work just as well for other formats; maybe even better, because I think scenes that run counter to type can be even more shocking and emotionally resonant – which is sometimes the point. Happy to have been helpful!

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