As someone who writes dark fantasy books, I’m always interested in what makes a reader’s skin crawl. You know the feeling.
When it’s 4 am and you’re in the house alone and that shadow outside your door looks sort of threatening and it half reminds you of a story you read…
Yes, that! I want that. And, since you’re reading this, I guess you do too.
So, ahead of Halloween and our celebration of all things spooky, here are a few tips gleaned from my own experience and some from the masters that can help you amp up the scares in your own stories while still weaving a great yarn.
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You’re watching a horror film. The trailer looked spine-tingling. You’d even warmed up your shoulder so you could full-on fling your popcorn. But you’re forty minutes in, seven people have died and you’re worried you might too…of boredom. There’s a reason for that.
When you’ve got a great idea for a monster, or you’re excited about how your villain is going to stalk or torture their victim, it can be really easy to fall into one big trap. I call it Getting Blood Everywhere.
This is where we as writers concentrate so much on the blood and gore, the brilliance of a monster or the psychopathy of a villain, that we don’t pay attention to actual story dynamics. While a great idea might hook people, the mechanics of the story is really what has to deliver.
Pay attention to your beginning, your middle and your end and what is taking you through all of them. Focus in on character. Know how to pace yourself. Yes, it might sound boring but these are the things that will help your great ideas shine.
With horror it’s tempting to think that the conflict is easy: Monster stalks victim. Take Stephen King’s It for example. On the surface, nearly every scene in that book might be boiled down to King’s signature scary clown attempting to devour his plucky victims through various guises and scenarios.
This isn’t really where you find the meat of the conflict though. The conflict, to take the example, is in the want:
Or in the wanting
You get the idea. Some of these are external conflicts, some are internal. Having a good mix of the two will give your story depth and keep it moving forward.
A lot of people have studied Anne Rice’s work because, like King, she is considered to be at the forefront of horror writing. I love this quote from Susan Ferraro writing for The New York Times in which she says the following about Rice’s famous vampires in Interview with the Vampire:
“Rice turns vampire conventions inside out. Because Rice identifies with the vampire instead of the victim (reversing the usual focus), the horror for the reader springs from the realization of the monster within the self. Moreover, Rice’s vampires are loquacious philosophers who spend much of eternity debating the nature of good and evil.”
Rice does the same in The Witching Hour where you are both haunted and enchanted by the mysterious force known as Lasher who is the demon and demure lover of the Mayfair Witches. It’s a clever trick to play, and it challenges us to think about what we really fear and why. Usually, the answer relates to our wants. We want to be seduced. We want to be powerful. We want to be, we want to be, we want to be.
Personally, I have a thing about eyes. I can watch shows about surgery all day long (plastic surgery shows are my guilty pleasure) and see blood and bile squirting out of people left and right, but show me someone with a done-in eye and I’m the one hiding behind the sofa. Hate. It.
If you want to really turn my stomach, this is something that will get me. For that reason, I often have creatures with gammy eyes in my stories. I also find the idea of creatures appearing human but actually having another, truer form really unsettling. The idea is that the monsters could hide in plain sight. *shudder*
Look to what scares you and then push, push, push until you’re squirming like you’ve got a nest of fire ants in your trousers.
While I certainly advocate for boundary pushing, know that there are limits. I don’t necessarily mean avoiding bad taste stuff, either. While you should definitely write age appropriately (if nothing else, giving graphic descriptions of a monster disemboweling a victim is going to be wasted on a seven year old), I’m actually talking about using your scares carefully.
Consider them like coins you’re spending. Make every cut off ear, every blood pumping heart, every torture, all earn their value. Otherwise, they can quickly become routine and you’ve spent your best stuff and got zero reaction from it. Getting the balance right is tricky, but it will pay off in the end.
Horror is actually really fun to write exactly because it breaks rules. So rip them up, genre bend and have some fun. Tell a joke or two. Then kill the neighbours.
1. Mirror Face