Thursday, December 6

Writing Horror: What Makes A Story Scary?

Writing Horror: What Makes A Story Scary?

If, like me, you're looking for tips on how to write a horror story that will scare the bejesus out of your readers, then I recommend reading Talia Vance's aptly named article, Writing Scary.

Talia's article deserves to be read and re-read, but if you're a skimmer (like me) here are the highlights:


The Goal of a Horror Story


The goal of a horror story is to elicit fear in your reader.

Okay, no surprises there! The trick is: How?

Here are a few tips:


1. Atmosphere


Let's say you want to create an atmosphere that cultivates fear. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

- Night vs day
Night is scarier.
- Weather
Stormy, Angry clouds. Wind lashing the trees.
- Location
Dungeon, abandoned house, haunted mansion, cemetery
- Sounds
The scrapping, chittering, sounds of rodents,  the dry slithering of insects.
- Smells
The smell of decay, of slow rot, of decomposing flesh.

But perhaps you don't want to cultivate an atmosphere of fear. Perhaps you want the reader to feel safe. When I was a kid sometimes I'd hide around a corner and try to scare my mom (yes, she put up with a lot!) In that case you want everything to seem as safe and normal as possible. Talia writes:
A murder in a dark alley in the middle of the night might not be as scary as one that happens during a six year old’s birthday party on a sunny Saturday.  
(Cringe) Good point! To me, though, that's scary but also very, very, creepy.


2. Set the Stakes: Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character


Make your reader emotionally invested in your protagonist and they will be afraid for them when they accept a bet to spend the night, alone, in a haunted house. Talia writes:
Make your characters relatable, likeable and give them a personal stake in the outcome.  No one is afraid for the red shirt guy who dies on Star Trek, but they care about what happens to Spock. 
Very true. Also, on the subject of getting your readers to relate to your character, Michael Hauge teaches that there are 5 ways to do this:

a. Make your character sympathetic.
b. Make your character funny.
c. Make your character likable.
d. Put your character in jeopardy.
e. Make your character powerful.

Michael writes that your character doesn't need all 5 of those things, but they need at least two. For more on this subject see: How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character.


3. Foreshadowing


Drop hits that something bad is going to happen soon. Very soon.

Example: The movie Alien. I held my breath as I watched Sigourney Weaver work her way through the bowels of the ship toward the safety of the shuttle. At each turn I expected an alien with extreme dental issues to spring out and capture her.


4. Primal Fears


These are fears common to everyone.

Death
Our death but also the death of family and friends.

Disaster (fear of death)
- Nature vs human: Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, etc.
- Human vs human: Spree killers, serial killers, hitmen, etc.

Loss & Rejection & Embarrassment
Fear of speaking in public (--> fear of loss/rejection), fear of flying (--> fear of death), fear of heights (--> fear of death), and so on.

Talia writes:
You can give your characters’ quirks and unique fears based on their own experiences, but find a wait to relate them to universal, primal fears to incite fear in the reader.
One thing that made the movie Alien scary was that the insect-like critters didn't just kill humans, they incapacitated them and implanted their body with a larva that devoured them them from the inside out. Now that's primal and off-the-scale creepy.


5. Pacing


You want your readers' fear to build throughout your story right up until the resolution when your protagonist either faces their fear and defeats it or is defeated by it.


6. Red Herrings


As you know, if everything your readers anticipate will happen does happen your story will be predictable and therefore not all that interesting. You need to have a few red herrings, a few false alarms.

For instance, one of your characters needs to go into a scary situation where your reader will just know something is going to jump out from the blackness and eat them up but then ... a black cat jumps out from the darkness, terrified out of its wits and runs away. Your reader laughs. Then your character gets eaten. :-)


7. Payoff/Resolution


The threat, the personification of your characters' fear, must step on stage at the end of your story. There needs to be a resolution, one way or the other.

Well, that's it! Great tips from Talia Vance, not only for writing horror stories, but for any kind of story. Thanks to Elizabeth S. Craig for tweeting the link to this article.

Have you written a horror story? I'm curious, were you a little scared yourself as you wrote?

Other articles you might like:

- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
- Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?
- Dean Wesley Smith's Advice To Indie Authors For 2013: How To Sell Fiction

Photo credit: "why so serious, ann arbor?" by erin leigh mcconnell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

4 comments:

  1. These are nice, basic tips, but I think to write true horror, one must delve extensively into the human psyche. Of these seven tips, the two most important are atmosphere and primal fears. These seem to be the predominant means that Lovecraft used extensively.

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    1. Hi Phil, thanks for your comment.

      "... I think to write true horror, one must delve extensively into the human psyche."

      Absolutely. And not just for horror.

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  2. I started on writing horror short stories a few days ago and HELL YES, I was scared while writing it. The main theme was fear of the dark, a silly and childish fear of myself but if you suffer from fear of the dark you know it is horrible.

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    Replies
    1. I've been scared of the dark! I think most folks have, which makes it a terrific fear to write about. Sounds like a spine-tingling, adrenalynn filled, story. Grats!

      Delete

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