Sunday, 30 January 2011

How Not to Write Horror: Part 2

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

… and by die I mean any of: Death, Mutilation, Kidnapping, Torture, Toe Stubbing, Poisoning, Orphaning… and generally anything else bad happening. I mean, that’s the point of horror, isn’t it? Threat is a good word to describe what we write about in horror. So why should I care if you’re threatened?

Reading stories involves an investment by the reader – their time and emotion. If they’re reading horror, the investment should reward with heightened feelings, adrenaline pulses and sensory arousal.

This mostly comes down to the characterization of the people in the world that you create. A novel about a man that does nothing, says nothing and has no objective holds little favour in the eyes of the reader. What I’m saying, is that if you want to draw a reader in to your story, you need to give them a reason. The number one reason for investing your emotion in a story is to care about the protagonists.

Depending on the length of horror you’re aiming at, depends on how much the reader should care. I know that there are many lengths of story, but for convenience (mine, mostly) I’ll break it down to three: Flash Fiction, Short Story, and Novel.

Flash Fiction

Back in Part 1, I used the term scary, now I’m talking about characters. Flash fiction generally has a maximum word count of between 500 and 1500 words. Building a character in 1500 words isn’t too hard… but hold on… you need a story as well – a scary one. Hm. It’s tough isn’t it?

There is actually a vast difference between the word limits that I’ve mentioned. A 500 word story gives you no time for anything: a short build of story and a shock.

Flash fiction of this length shouldn’t have, and doesn’t need, character building – you don’t have time and the reader isn’t looking for vast investment in any sense. It’s about the shock. 1500 word stories are different, but the worst thing that you can do is spend 1000 of those words describing how your hero’s beard is perfect.

What I’m saying is, that in flash fiction, build your story not your character.

Short Story

Let’s say up to 7000 words. A lot isn’t it? No. However, a short story rattling up 5-7K in length is plenty time for you to create a character.

If you want to scare, the reader has to care.

It’s difficult to create a persona in less than, say, 1000 words, but with a short story you have the ability to develop the main character over the progression of the story. Don’t flood the reader with inane details about who they are reading about right at the start. Some inane details are worth knowing – but spread them over the story.

By the end of the story, a well developed character should be present – one in which the reader feels justified in caring about.


There are two ways to look at character development in novels. The first is the one that develops a character (or characters) over the first few chapters.

This has one great advantage… throughout the novel you care about those described.

But also, you have to be really good at it. I’m reading a novel, I want to be scared, why am I reading about Bob Smith? Read Stephen King. He’s good at it.

The second way is to develop characters over time – you’ve got plenty of it – but you must invest a little in the character at the start, and most of all, you mustn’t forget to characterize over time.

So the conclusion here is: You’re not going to scare anyone by talking about a faceless nobody.

Continuing in Part 3: Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves and the like.

Part 1 of How Not to Write Horror can be found here.


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

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done, and so true. It get harder the shorter the story for me. I like to be able to really let my characters be known, and I need ample space to do that. I'm a big fan of Novellette and higher!!