Sunday, 23 January 2011

How Not to Write Horror: Part 1

Part 1: The Misconception

So you want to write horror? Good. You’ve never written it before? Fine. So what is this misconception? It’s simple. By simple, I mean simple for me to say… not for you to write.

Let’s take it to its base term: What is horror?

Films are generally where most of us find our first love of horror: Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser… yes, I’m citing classic horror of the last thirty years or so, because I know that you’ve all seen them. Wait. What? You haven’t seen those films… go and watch them now, I’ll wait…

… seen them now? Good. I’ll continue.

All three of the above are great examples of horror well done. It doesn’t matter for this part that they’re films, it’s about the misconception.

Each of them exhibits a different mood, theme and vitally, different take on scary. Now I’ve changed horror into scary. Horror, true horror, should scare the reader. Now scaring the reader is a whole different part, but after all, this is how not to write horror and for that we can look at the scary takes that each of the examples have given, and how in the same contents we can fubar it.

Whether it’s a monster, a dream or hell itself, these films are there to scare. They are dark, intense and atmospheric. So how can we ruin that?

Misconception 1: More is better.

I think that all writers have done it, and to be honest, in the realms of the finished article, the stories turned out the way that we wanted. They may be good stories, they may be great, but what’s wrong with them? Take these two brief scenarios (clich├ęd that they may be):

Driving down the windy road (night, raining, lightening of course) the car containing male A and female B breaks down. Male A goes for help, never to return. Female B goes in search of him, bumping into random spooky male C. Horror ensues.

Driving down the windy road (night, raining, lightening of course) the car containing male A and female B breaks down. The broken down car in besieged by twenty or so hungry vampires, and much swinging of crosses and gnashing of teeth ensues.

The second of the two may make for a great story, an epic action tale of heroism and slaying, but is unlikely to draw the reader into the scary zone. If you want scary… stay simple.

Misconception 2: Blood, gore, guts and horribly and graphically described sticky deaths.

There is a massive misconception that revulsion is the same thing as horror. It’s not. I’ve written horror where virtually no one dies, and especially being described on the page. Whilst equally I’ve had stories rejected by a press for the simple reason that I’d hidden my story under a fountain of blood.

Writing about the bogie man (whether it be monsters, vamps, zombies, humans, etc.) doesn’t need be a blood-fest of graphic violence.

It needs to about your ability to stir emotions in the reader, emotions that they may not want, but will turn the page until you are ready to take them away.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for gore, graphic violence and torture porn, but it’s not in horror fiction when you are replacing scary (or the story completely) with it – only when it’s there to nurture it – and it’s unlikely you’ll need it… not if your story is scary.

So the conclusion here is: Hordes of anything is unlikely to be scary in a story, and, ripping the throat out of someone maybe necessary, but if it takes you 500 words to do it, and your thought on the finished article is, “that’ll terrify them,” you’re most likely wrong.

Continuing in Part 2: Why should I care… if you die?


These are my own opinions, and should only be taken as a guideline.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Mark, I agree with your article, scaring the reader by making them think about something that could be real and scary and making them feel full of suspense and anxiety, teasing their emotions and perhaps pushing it to the limit, is real and raw horror. Better than just blood and guts, which mostly results in a quick shock to the gut!!