There are few things in my life that truly interest me. One of them is good writing. I strive for that every time I sit at my laptop; and love, love, love to see words on paper. Especially when it comes to writing horror, “they won’t stay dead” short stories and novels.
Why Does This Matter?
Because there are so many genres in writing, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of them in separate blog posts. I’ve already talked about My Favorite Books of All Time and What’s Down the Dark Hall, so now let’s move on to the truly scary.
“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …” — Stephen King. From http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/the-horror-genre-on-writing-horror-and-avoiding-cliches
Now, that we are getting into the Season of ghouls, witches and ghosts, I thought it would be fun to see how best to WRITE HORROR.
Because there is a RIGHT way to write horror, and then, there’s crap.
Have you seen the movie Night of The Living Dead? The original, now, not any phony re-make, but the heart-pounding, creepy, one-of-a-kind beginning to a movie that will have you jumping, literally, out of your seat?!
If not, then go here:
It may look cheesy, but you’ll be hiding in 5 minutes, I guarantee!
Isn’t THAT the way you want to scare people?! You better believe it. Good horror writing will do that to you.
Books like Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Ghost Story, Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting of Hill House, House of Leaves and The Shining. We’ve all heard of these, because they were THAT good.
Movies such as The Exorcist, The Haunting, Halloween, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, The Sixth Sense, and on and on into the dark night.
Do you want to write like this!?
Come along, then, as we explore how to write horror. Spooky, scary, frightening as all get-out, horror. Something NOT to keep you in your seat.
First, write for your audience.
Write what scares YOU. But make it good, really good, for your reader. That is the cardinal rule of ANY writing, but especially when delving into areas like horror or mystery. Because you can get caught up in a storyline that will feel like it’s been done before.
Done to death.
And it probably has been. There is always a new twist on an old story. So, find it, use it, and write it. But do it well!
Second, get them scared from the first paragraph.
Now, not every story does this and they still manage to be a blockbuster hit, but you have to include some degree of creepy right from the start. Or it won’t work.
Or you will see spooky integrated into the first scene if you’re watching a movie or TV. Whether you use scary, creepy, out-of-this-world, zombies, vampires, aliens, green slime, monsters, haunted houses, castles, psychopaths, serial killers, animals, crazed children, or any other device you can think up, stick with what you start with and never veer from that.
Third, write about things that scare you.
Dark rooms, elevators, dingy basements, a haunted house, walking alone after dark, lightning, being home alone. Or try a twist on a successful theme; such as vampires found in the school locker-room or a statue you buy while vacationing in Mexico.
Use a specific fear. We all have them. All you need do is to apply that fear in a brand new way. Sounds easy, but it takes some doing. And, don’t forget EVERYONE is afraid of the dark. There’s a start!
What makes you nervous? For me, it’s riding in a elevator alone. I never do it. And I’ll wait and wait for someone to come along until I get in. Maybe, it’s a fear of being mugged. I’ve had that happen too; and it’s terrifying. EVERY parking lot I walk in, even in the noonday sun, I’m always watching for something.
There’s a clue. Something. What IS that something?
Fourth, don’t be cliche-y.
I know that’s not exactly a word, but it’ll do. Don’t take what’s been written before and use it for your next big idea. It will deflate like a busted balloon; quickly and loudly. (Hate those adverbs).
Be original. After all, that’s what you came here to do, isn’t it? You have an idea that’s been swimming around in your head for a while, and you just KNOW if you get it down on paper or Scrivener or something, it will become the new bestseller. Who knows, you may be right 😉
Fifth, know your characters.
These would be your protagonist, who is your MAIN CHARACTER and the antagonist, the person who stands in opposition to your MC. You should have a complete “file” on each character as you add them to your story; one that tells you everything about them, right down to what color nail polish they like most of all.
This is where the heart of true horror lies. In its characters. Each one needs to be so real to your reader, so believable to your reader, so authentic to your reader, that your reader will follow them anywhere, will believe anything, will understand WHY they are in the trouble they are in.
Unless you develop your characters to be the human being that they are, your story will remain stiff and lifeless. In this case, “they WILL stay dead!”
Sixth, your protagonist must be human!
She must make mistakes. She’s vulnerable, has hangups, isn’t very good at balancing her checkbook or making sure the laundry is done for school the next day.
Then, when everyone least expects it, put your main character in danger. But, not for long. Then, make it worse before it gets better. Then, worse again. Unimaginable. But, make it VERY imaginable. That’s horror!
You know, I was about 14 years old, the first time I watched the movie “Psycho” on TV. My mother kept raving about how scary this movie was and we settled down in her bedroom to watch it. When the shower scene came on, I became almost sick to my stomach. I never watched the rest of the movie, because my heart was pounding so badly and it felt like I was on the edge of a panic attack.
Seventh, keep your story moving along.
Like so many coffins spilling out of the cemetery in a flood. You, as author, need to be ONE with your story. You have to know all of the ins and outs, all of the plot twists, and surprises, so that one doesn’t surprise you.
When you write horror, or mystery or any fiction, you want to incorporate characters with where they live. I don’t mean that literally, but describe their surroundings, make sure your audience knows where they are and where you are leading them.
Horror writing, as with suspense writing, is IN YOUR FACE. Upfront and VERY personal. Remember, to SHOW your readers, don’t merely TELL them.
One of the secrets to good horror or mystery writing, is to use
SHORT SENTENCES AND EVEN SHORTER PARAGRAPHS.
Sometimes, even a one-sentence paragraph will do.
And here’s a BONUS tip
Read your little heart out. Find horror books that you haven’t read or re-read those you have read. Keep reading, and read everything; fiction, mystery, non-fiction, biography, memoir, suspense, and more. Because if you want to write, then you better be someone who loves to read.
Here’s a short list to keep you busy:
- The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
- Dracula – Bram Stoker
- The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
- Ghost Story – Peter Straub
- Hell House – Richard Matheson
- The Crawling Chaos – H.P. Lovecraft
- The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty
- The Heart Shaped Box – Joe Hill (did you know he is Stephen King’s son?)
- Anything Stephen King!
This will keep you busy for some time!
So, be sure to go back and look at these tips again and use them when you sit down to start writing your own horror story.
Henry James, that most esteemed author of the 19th century said it best,
We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task The rest is the madness of art.
Enjoy your HORROR writing. But, be sure to do it right! Because you just want to scare the hell out of people!
Just another way to
“Homekeeping Solutions for Crafting Your Best Life!”