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Writing Horror! Buy from Amazon.com
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On Writing - Stephen King


 

  How to Make Horror Scary
by Richard Spurling

With all due modesty, I suggest you start by reading my article, Why Horror Scares Us. In that article I proposed that horror scares us because the writer has manipulated our imagination. The writing doesn’t scare us, we scare ourselves.

So,” you’re asking yourself. “How do I go about this great trick?

Hands up all of you who said ‘show, don’t tell’. It's funny how that old maxim comes back to haunt us, isn’t it, and like all good hauntings, it’s all in the mind. The reader’s mind...

Basic Principals

Like all fiction, horror is not going to work unless you can take your reader away into another world. The basic tools and techniques of good writing are as critical in horror as they are in all genres. It could even be argued that the only difference between the genres lies in the emotions targeted.

You are aiming to establish and then maintain a fictive dream, that state where your reader forgets the real world and lives only in yours. This can only happen when you stimulate the reader’s imagination, but can be broken at any time. ‘Tis a fragile state. While you cannot control the outside influences on your reader, you can control the writing – that’s your job!

Ensure that your writing is invisible. The reader should be seeing the images created in his imagination, not your words. Poetic writing is fun to read aloud, and there is great satisfaction in sharing a particularly fine phrase with your partner, but the conscious mind, that critter which noted the fine writing and wished to share it, is the natural enemy of your imagination.

The writing should do no more than conjure up images in the reader’s imagination.

Similarly, clunky writing, sentences that need to be read twice, strange phrases or broken grammar, all have the inner critic howling in its cage and the fictive dream is broken.

Get the story right, then get the writing right. If you don’t, all you are doing is exercising an editor’s reject reflex.

So the Writing’s Right, but …

So the writing’s right but the story is still as scary as last night’s pasta. What’d you do wrong?

Ask yourself, is the story right? There’s a good chance it isn’t. Perhaps it’s a good story but there’s no fright.


One Spark and It’s Gone

What is the thing most people look for in horror?

A good shock?

A good shock, while titillating, contains little satisfaction and certainly no lasting fear. Think about the old chef taking the axe in the movie version of ‘The Shining’. The axe strikes from nowhere and he falls down dead. The shock factor is there, but the effect is gone by the time the next scene starts.

Shock is like a spark. One flash and it’s gone. There’s no fire unless it has some kindling to set alight.

If you are going to use shock, do something with it. It’s the beginning of the scare, not the scare itself. The suddenl- dead body is more than just a janitor’s nightmare, it’s a source of tension and horror that the writer has a responsibility to milk. How do the other character’s react? What else does that body do? What does it precede?

Suspense

If shock is the blunt instrument, suspense is the surgical scalpel. Suspense is that feeling that something is coming … still coming. It’s not here but the reader can sense it, knows it’s there, and while it’s coming, tension is building.

Stephen King is the master of suspense. While most of us must be content with keeping the event from the reader and teasing them with the promise of something unknown to come, King goes further. King has the ability to create suspense even when we know exactly what is going to happen. And he stretches it out for pages. You can see the axe. You know it’s going to fall. And he’s keeps pushing the event further away, but you can’t miss a single word. Can’t bring yourself to skip forward to the blood letting.

Why?

Because every one of King’s words carries a message. Nothing is there for a free ride. You can’t skip ahead because you know you will miss something. Not ‘you might miss something’, you KNOW you will miss something important.

That’s the power of the master story teller.

Of course Stephen King, and every other horror writer with the power to entertain us, also knows how to hide the coming event. The trick is to convince us that something is coming. That breeds anticipation and that is the core of suspense.

Tail Ends

No matter how good your story, the suspenseful heights and shocking lows, if the end flops, the story flops.

Endings are critical. If your reader puts your story down with a feeling of disappointment, you story will be remembered with that sick feeling of waste.

So What Makes a Good Ending?

A twist helps, a good twist. Not some surprise that came flying in on the last wisp of cannabis smoke, but a genuine twist to the story that comes from the story. A good twist is one that is inevitable but unseen. You want your reader to sit back, shocked but convinced that this really happened.

Too many writers take the ending too far, go beyond the point where the reader is interested. The ending is best sculpted immediately after the resolution to the climax. After all, the climax and resolution is what the story is all about, what you’ve used all those words to create. There’s no need to carry on past that point.

I guess we’ve all experimented with ending at the resolution. It provides a stunning ending but leaves a sense of incompleteness. The best stories resolve the climax and then provide a neat cleaning up of the mess. Some of the more important threads are tied off. Some critical information is explained.

But not all of it.

A good ending leaves one major question gaping to tease the reader’s imagination. A good ending leaves the conscious satisfied but provides the imagination with a puzzle to play with even after leaving the author's fictional realm.

The killer was Grandma, but why did she bother to rise from the dead to do it?

Endings fail when all explanations are given and the writer drifts too far from the resolution. Ask yourself, can I chop the last paragraph? Yes? How about the next one? And the next?

I Know That Guy

Stories are nothing without characters. Obvious isn’t it. So why do so many people get it wrong?

A character isn’t someone poncing around in your story, though many writers seem to regard them as just that. A character is a real person.

That killer might be the bloke sitting next to you in the pub after work. The hero is someone’s lover, maybe someone’s Dad. If the reader can’t imagine walking into a bakery and seeing one of your characters buying a cake, that character hasn’t worked and the story will fail.

Good stories come from the characters. Good stories aren’t the plot or even the product of the plot – they are the sum of the actions of the characters. If the reader can’t believe in the character, they can’t believe the story.

This is particularly important when you are trying to stimulate intense emotions as we are with horror. There is nothing frightening about a fake mask, it’s the monster wearing it that’s scary. Make sure your characters are real, not papier-mâché masks.

That Happened to My Uncle Bill

Everyone has an Uncle Bill who has seen and done everything. If you haven’t, adopt one. They are bottomless sources of entertainment and every tall story they tell is the utter truth … or so you believe at the time.

Your story must have a core of granite like reality. The reader must believe that this really happened. Without that core, your climax is going to fall flat. That reality forms a foundation stone upon which you mount the climax but if that foundation stone is clay instead of granite, the story will fall under the weight of the climax.

This believability occurs when the characters themselves believe it. No matter how fanciful your setting, the characters who live there know it and trust it. There is no need to explain or apologise for the weirdness you make them face, just have them facing it with the same trust that you devour your morning slice of toast.

Roller Coaster Rides

When was the last time you picked up a horror story with the intention being bored silly?

Nah. I don’t either. I read the stuff because I want to be entertained. I don’t read King or Koontz or good old HPL to wallow in lyrical prose and the purity of the written word. I want a darned good yarn that takes me away from this world and, if I’m lucky, scares the living daylights out of me in the process.

It's a bit like that roller coaster that took six years off my life when we visited that entertainment park last year.

Very few successful roller coasters potter around slowly with gentle dips and curves. Not many carry you at a steady pace so that you can watch the adoring crowds. The roller coaster rides we enjoy are frantic, violent things with slow climbs that build tension, then mineshaft like drops that accelerate us into that corner you know for a fact is impossible to get around.

Variety, people. Put plenty of variety in your stories. Fast and slow pace but keep it moving. Stop the action and the reader gets up to make a cup of coffee. Make the story boring and the reader will watch the cat food commercial on the television instead. Action, lots of it but in varying forms. Cut out the 98 percent boredom that makes up most of our lives and just record the frantic interludes.

But remember, slow pace is also your friend. It is then that your reader has the time to savour the suspense, build the tension until all it needs is a pinprick to explode at your climax.

It’s All The Same Only Different

Writing successful horror is not so much different to success in any genre. The differences lie in the emotions we target. Read widely, across all genres. If you can learn how to evoke pity, you can evoke fear. If you can make a reader laugh, you can leave them horrified. The techniques and skills are the same, it’s the emphasis that changes.

Similarly, the flaws that destroy a thriller will make a horror story bland. As well as the good stuff, read the bad stuff. Not too much of it, there’s no point wasting too much of that precious reading time, but if you can see why this story failed, you may be able to see why your last story was rejected or avoid that trap with your next one.

Learn from the masters and learn from the duds.

Then be the master, not the dud.


Richard Spurling is a single father and professional story teller – the two tend to get blurred. His novels include horror and thrillers for both adults and children while his short stories are a mix of genres, most with a horror theme. He is the author of two e-books – The Easy Way to Rewrite, the last word in crafting your novel, and Writing Through the Black Mist, a personal guide to depression. Samples of his work can be found at his website at www.richardspurling.com

 



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