Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, April 23

The Uncanny In Fiction


The uncanny “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror ...” 
—Sigmund Freud

Have you ever had the feeling, upon waking, that your dream had followed you? Perhaps you woke, but a small panicked voice deep within you screamed you hadn’t, that it was still a dream, that ‘they’ were still out there, still coming to get you. That deep confused uneasiness, that sense of unreality, is one of the aspects of the uncanny; a feeling, a presentiment, that straddles the line between reality and unreality. [1]

In what follows I want to examine the various aspects of the uncanny as well as how the feeling might be elicited in readers.

The Uncanny: A Definition


Our word, “uncanny” comes from the German word, “unheimlich,” which means, more or less, “the opposite of what is familiar.” Or, rather, “a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar that is experienced as being peculiar.” (The Uncanny, Wikipedia)

I prefer Sigmund Freud’s definition. In “The Uncanny” he wrote, “[...] the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” [2] To put it another way, it is the familiar which is, for whatever reason, kept out of sight. Hidden.

The Circumstances Of The Uncanny


Freud asks: Why is the uncanny frightening? Is it because it is the opposite of what is known and familiar? He didn’t think so and pointed out that just because something is new or unfamiliar does not automatically mean it is frightening. Something in addition to this is at play.

The Uncanny And The Familiar


The uncanny depends upon something, in Freud’s words, “strangely familiar,” something “which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”

The Familiar Evil


Another way of looking at the uncanny, another aspect of the feeling, is of something that ought to have remained hidden and secret but has, for whatever reason, become visible.

In this sense, the uncanny is the familiar evil. Freud writes: “on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.” It is that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” [1]

Tsvetan Todorov: The Circumstances of the Uncanny


Todorov writes,

“The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations....” [3]

Let’s go through these conditions.

1. “the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described.”

So ...

- The story world needs to be immersive.

- The story and story world must allow for two separate and opposite explanations, explanations which are equally plausible.

2. “this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.”

- The story needs to be told from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. This would seem to indicate either a close third person or first person point of view.

- The viewpoint character must not know whether what they experience is a dream or reality, whether they are mad or sane. In general, they must not know whether their experiences have a natural, or supernatural, explanation.

3. “the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations....”

- I’m not one hundred percent sure what Todorov means here, but I think this is another reference to the fact that the reader must be led to suspend disbelief. The story itself must have a sense of reality, of consistency. It must have its own logic, even though that logic might be extremely strange and twisted.

When I read (3) I was reminded of the third movie in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, “In the Mouth of Madness.” In this movie, an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, humans are driven insane when they either finish reading a book called, you guessed it, “In the Mouth of Madness” or watch the movie of the same name. The idea is to convince the audience that by watching the movie or reading the book that they, too, will go insane. Through the use of a twisted kind of self-reference, the story reaches out to the reader and attempts to draw him or her into the horrific dreamworld of the story.

This isn’t a new idea, Robert W. Chambers employed it when he wrote, “The King in Yellow,” first published in 1895 (it can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg here). This book is a collection of short stories, many of which include mention of a book called “The King in Yellow.” Reading this book (the book within the book) was guaranteed to drive a person mad. Of course, the implication—the way the story reached out beyond itself and involved the reader—is that the reader, due to her having read the volume, will be condemned to madness just as the characters were.

Really, this is an amazing and special kind of story—one which warns the reader not to finish the story! 

Examples Of The Uncanny


Alive?


Doubt about whether a certain animate being is truly alive. (see: Uncanny Valley) Also, doubt about whether a certain inanimate being is truly not living.

Examples: Wax work figures, automatons, puppets, clowns.

The following passage has been often quoted in the literature. Freud writes:

“Jentsch says: ‘In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton; and to do it in such a way that his attention is not directly focused upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be urged to go into the matter and clear it up immediately, since that, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing. [...]’”

Is this a dream? 


Doubt about whether one is dreaming or perhaps delirious, even insane, a doubt often brought on by a recurrence of “the same situations, things and events.”

Freud wrote:

“That factor which consists in a recurrence of the same situations, things and events, will perhaps not appeal to everyone as a source of uncanny feeling. From what I have observed, this phenomenon does undoubtedly [...] awaken an uncanny feeling, which recalls that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams. Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself  back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.” [2]

The double


Freud wrote:

“These themes are all concerned with the idea of a “double” in every shape and degree, with persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike; Hoffmann accentuates this relation by transferring mental processes from the one person to the other—what we should call telepathy—so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own—in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of similar situations, a same face, or character-trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, or even a same name recurring throughout several consecutive generations.” [2]

When I read this I thought of the book, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. Also the movie Pi, or The Number 23. 

Other instances of ‘the double’ are reflections in mirrors, shadows, guardian spirits and, arguably, the belief in the soul. [2]

That is a rather broad list, but it makes sense to me. Think of the many stories about staring into a mirror and repeating a name three times to summon an entity or of the myth that mirrors can be used as gateways. For example, Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”). 

Notes:


3. Tsvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975), via web page: The Uncanny and the Fantastic.

Tuesday, April 21

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

I’ve been reading and writing Gothic stories all my life, though I didn’t always know that’s what they were.

As a girl I tore through Mary Stewart’s Gothic Romances and most recently I’ve been ensnared by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s marvelous Pendergast series, an example of Southern Gothic.

I’m not going to lie, Gothic fiction is a big topic and perhaps I should start off with definitions and talk about how Gothic fiction differs from other sorts of fiction, and so on, but I’m not going to. Today I’m just going to dip my toe in the water and discuss what I think is an important and fruitful distinction in ANY kind of literature: terror vs horror.

Terror vs Horror: The Anticipated vs The Actual


In what follows I’m drawing from material I found on the university of Virginia’s servers. It came up in a Google search on “psychological overlay.” Here’s the link: Individual and Social Psychologies of the Gothic: Introduction.

Although terror and horror might appear superficially similar (terror is extreme fear and horror is defined as “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust”) one could argue—as Ann Radcliffe did in an 1826 essay—that ...

“[...] terror is characterized by ‘obscurity’ or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, ‘nearly annihilates’ the reader's responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.” [1]

One gets the feeling Radcliffe would NOT have appreciated the 2004 movie Saw.

Echoing Radcliffe, Devendra Varma characterized the difference between “terror and horror as the difference between ‘awful apprehension and sickening realization,’ [...]”. Of terror she writes: “Sounds unexplained, sights indistinctly caught, dim shadows endowed with motion by the flicker of the firelight or the shimmer of the moonbeam invoke superstitious fear.” [2]

Horror, on the other hand, depends upon seeing the physical objects our fertile imaginations cast in a thousand shades of darkness. As Radcliffe put it, "the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the Sun can show." [3]

Summing up, Devendra P. Varma writes: 

“The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse. [...] Terror thus creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a cruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolting, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair. Horror appeals to sheer dread and repulsion, by brooding upon the gloomy and the sinister, and lacerates the nerves by establishing actual cutaneous contact with the supernatural...” [2]

Another Perspective: Physical Ambiguity vs Moral And Psychological Ambiguity


While I’m personally convinced by the arguments put forward by Radcliffe and her modern ally, Varma, there is another way of looking at the distinction between the terrifying and the horrible. 

Robert Hume begins his critique by pointing out that Radcliffe’s technique, how she generates terror, is by using “dramatic suspension.” Which is another way of saying that Radcliffe “raises vague but unsettling possibilities and leaves them dangling for hundreds of pages.” (Where have I heard that technique used before? Lee Child.) Hume remarks that “Mrs. Radcliffe's easy manipulation of drawn-out suspense holds the reader's attention through long books with slight plots.” [4]

But, Hume says, terror isn’t the only game in town. Other writers hold the readers attention just as well and without aid of either suspense or dread, instead “they attack him frontally with events that shock or disturb him.” [4]

Rather than enumerating a labyrinth of possibilities that never materialize “they heap a succession of horrors upon the reader.” These sort of books gain much of their effect “from murder, torture, and rape.” [4]

Hume sums up his position: 

“The difference from terror-Gothic is considerable; Mrs. Radcliffe merely threatens these things, and Walpole uses violent death only at the beginning and end of his book. The reader is prepared for neither of these deaths, which serve only to catch the attention and to produce a climax, respectively.”

“[...] with the villain-heroes of horror-Gothic we enter the realm of the morally ambiguous. Ambrosio, Victor Frankenstein, and Melmoth are men of extraordinary capacity whom circumstance turns increasingly to evil purposes. They are not merely monsters [...]”

“To put the change from terror-Gothic to horror-Gothic in its simplest terms, the suspense of external circumstance is de- emphasized in favor of increasing psychological concern with moral ambiguity. The horror-Gothic writers [...] wrote for a reader who could say with Goethe that he had never heard of a crime which he could not imagine himself committing. The terror novel prepared the way for a fiction which though more overtly horrible is at the same time more serious and more profound.” [4]

The Appeal of Moral Ambiguity


Think of “The Silence of the Lambs,” either the book or the movie. That story was one in which the protagonist’s mentor, Hannibal Lecter (aka Hannibal the Cannibal) was a brutal serial killer. And, strangely, he was kinda, sorta, a good guy. Why? Because he helped stop another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, and because Hannibal only killed jerks. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, killed without regard to the intrinsic characteristics of the victim; what they were like as people. Buffalo Bill’s victims were simply a means to an end. He was only interested in their exterior, their skin. 

For myself, one of the fascinating things about the universe Thomas Harris created was that he not only crafted a complex character like Hannibal Lecter but that he made me genuinely care about him, even root for him.

To Sum Up


Although a particular story could eschew horror and rely only upon suspense in order to create narrative drive, or vice versa, they (of course) work best together. That said, I thought it was interesting and possibly instructive to try an conceptually tease the two apart so as to meditate upon what is unique to each as well as how such feelings might be generated in readers.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Sketch by Edward Gorey.

Notes:


(All references are from “Terror and Horror.”)
1. Ann Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry," The New Monthly Magazine (1826): 145-52.
2. Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).
3. Ann Radcliffe, “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”
4. Robert Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA 84 (1969): pp. 282-290.

Thursday, November 13

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings




The Character Opening


The character story opening is my favorite kind of opening, though it’s arguably the trickiest to pull off. 

At the moment I’m on a Gillian Flynn reading jag. Her books, all but the first, start out with strong, shocking, character descriptions. 

Here’s the first few lines of her second book, Dark Places:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.”

Dark Places is (or so it seems to me, I’m about 25% of the way through) a mystery wrapped in a horror story. But not supernatural horror, not the kind one can laugh off after leaving the theater. This is about something that feels real, the sort of thing we hear about on the news and are enraged by, or crushed by, for a few hours or days until the ebb and flow of our daily lives draws us back and makes us forget the evil that lurks beneath the skin. 

Gillian Flynn smashes off a chunk of that evil and forms her all-too-human characters with it.

But perhaps horror isn’t your cup of tea. (It would make a nasty cuppa, black and bitter and deadly.)

His jaw was long and bony ...


Here’s one of my favorite first paragraphs:

“Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

Yes, this is also a descriptive opening, but it gives us a peek (if I may put it like this) into the protagonist’s soul. It gives us a broad hint at exactly how difficult Sam would be to manipulate and how far he might take things. 

Why Do These Openings Work?


I want to write a longer post on why certain openings are effective but, here, I’d say that both openings surprise (perhaps even shock) the reader. Also, both openings have an intimate tone. And both these protagonists are, let’s face it, strange.

Most importantly, though, each opening raises questions.

In Dark Places the question is one of nature vs nurture. One asks: Why does the protagonist (Libby Day) have a meanness inside her? Is she correct, is it a matter of who she is, a matter of her blood? Is it the case that there’s something wrong with her and it doesn’t matter what she does, it’s always going to be there? Or perhaps something, something horrible, happened in her past, something that changed her, that warped her. Something that, perhaps, can be at least partially undone. And if so, what was it?

This is a terrific opener for the book because those questions form the core, the irregularly beating heart, of the story. They never go away, they just become more and more urgent. 

Character openings are infrequent


There are good reasons to not start a story off by looking into the soul of the main character. Many folks need their curiosity peeked first, they need to know a bit about the underlying story before they can be interested in a particular character.

The power of plot vs the power of characterization


I don’t believe there is any tension between characterization and plot; one can’t have strong characters without plot because plot flows naturally from the conflicts between strong characters. That said, I do think a story can be suspenseful in the absence of strong characterization. 

Don’t believe me? Read Stephen King’s retelling of “The Hook” (found in Danse Macabre), an urban myth that has a strong plot (that has narrative drive, suspense, etc.) but hardly any characterization. I wanted to reproduce it here but it was too long. If you do, imagine you and your friends are leaning forward into the warmth of a dying fire while one of you tells the tale. 

(Here is a link to The Hook over at Wikipedia; it’s not as good as Stephen King’s retelling but it will give you an idea what the story is if you’ve never heard it before.)

Here’s King’s comment:

“The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit. [...] No, the story of The Hook exists for one reason and one reason alone: to scare the shit out of little kids after the sun goes down.” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre)

And I think Stephen King would agree that the same could be said for most urban myths.

Why does The Hook work? Call it whatever you want, dramatic tension, narrative drive or suspense. 

My point (yes, there is one!) is that we often need whatever it is that the story of The Hook possesses, we need it at the beginning of the story to seduce readers into caring about the characters, to get the story rolling. 

Summary


I’m not putting this forward as a rule (there are no rules in writing) and as we’ve seen, some authors are brilliant at character introductions, so I would never try and discourage someone from starting their story off this way. It’s just, depending on the story and the style of the writer, more difficult to grab readers from the very first sentence.

Often writers reach for something shocking or contradictory or, failing that, something that frustrates our expectations and makes us think, something that gets us turning pages, something that gets us to care about the characters. Because, ultimately, it’s all about the characters.

So. That’s my take on why most openings are plot oriented rather than character oriented. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at humorous openings and try to pin down what makes something funny.

Photo credit: "Chihuahua" by kenichi nobusue under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 28

What Makes A Story Terrifying?

What Makes A Story Terrifying?


I love Halloween. Always have. Perhaps that’s why I love a good horror story.

The first horror story I heard was a spine-tingling tale of betrayal and dismemberment told around a dying fire. I remember it like it was yesterday. The flames flickered lazily over black husks of logs and faintly illuminated the shadowed faces of my nearest and dearest. But then as I looked at them something happened. In the space between two heartbeats they appeared transformed, hollow, their darker halves exposed.

Then someone laughed uneasily and the spell was broken. The monsters—or at least my recognition of them—melted away, sinking into my unconscious were it remains, the fuel of nightmares. 

Mm-wha-ha-ha. ;-)

What Makes A Scary Story A Horror Story?


What are the essential bits of a scary story, one that makes us imagine horrors under the bed so vividly we dare not dangle our toes over the edge?

I’ve accepted a challenge to write a scary story (ideally under 1,000 words, but in my case that’s SO not happening) and post it this Saturday as part of a special #SaturdayScenes challenge

I’ve thought of a story, but I wondered: is this story scary? Or, to put it another way, even though this story of mine has scary bits, is it really a horror story. So I took my question to Google and came up with an answer courtesy of Stephen King:

“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …” [1]

The Gross-Out, The Horror, The Terror


Although I’m sure it’s not as simple as this, let’s say that as long as a story has at least one of these three in it—the gross-out, the horror or the terror—that the story can, without undue fear of contradiction, be called a horror story.

Of course a horror story is, above all, a story and so (all things being equal, which they never are) should have a protagonist who wants something desperately. There should also be a force—a person or monster or supernatural entity—that opposes her achieving her goal. And there should be stakes. For more on this see:


What is horror? Terror? What gives rise to those emotions?


Let’s return to discussing the horror story. I’ve been reading Stephen King lately to pick up a few pointers, mostly his tome on terror: Danse Macabre. He writes:

“I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more or less than a necessary illusion [...] the feelings which we think of as “positive” and “constructive” are a reaching-out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication.”

“Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone.”

“The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration... but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again.”

“The closest I want to come to definition or rationalization is to suggest that the genre exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it. The finest emotion is terror, that emotion which is called up in the tale of [...] “The Monkey’s Paw.” We actually see nothing outright nasty [...] there is the paw, which, dried and mummified, can surely be no worse than those plastic dogturds on sale at any novelty shop. It’s what the mind sees that makes these stories such quintessential tales of terror.”

Terror is psychological. Mental. I’m reminded of a piece of flash fiction posted over at Creepypasta (that site is NOT safe to browse at work). Here’s the story, entitled "Bad Dreams":

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness — it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralyzed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift. [2]

We don’t see anything horrific, there is no gore. The terror is that someone who we thought we knew well, someone who is intimately entwined with our life, isn’t who we thought they were. We have invited the dangerous outsider into our lives and now nothing is to stop them from doing their worst. 

Or, as in “The Monkey’s Paw,” the terror could be that someone we know and love has been, through no fault of their own, transformed into a dangerous outsider.

King concludes that, at its heart, terror is about “secrets best left untold and things best left unsaid.” And what does the writer of horror do? They “promise to tell us the secret.”

That’s it! I was going to say something about horror and ‘the gross out,’ but I think we’ve probably got a handle on both of those. Remember, good horror, like all good fiction, is about the truth inside the lie.

Notes:


1. This quotation is attributed to Stephen King and it does read like something he would write. The Writer’s Digest article (The Horror Genre) doesn’t attribute the quotation to a specific work, but elsewhere it is said to come from King’s book “Danse Macabre,” which I can believe. After all, that book is King’s take on Horror, what it is, what it means, and so on. BUT I’ve searched my digital copy of the book and haven’t found it. I thought perhaps the quotation came from an updated version of the book but this morning I read the new forward to the 2010 edition in it’s entirety (courtesy of Google Books since I don’t want to buy the newer version) and didn’t find the quotation. Perhaps I simply missed it, but I thought I would note this minor mystery. If anyone comes upon the quotation in King’s work, I would appreciate it if you would tell me where it’s found. Thanks!

2. Creepypasta, over at Aeon.com.

Photo credit: "Evil Min-ja" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 4

Eight Tips: How To Tell A Scary Story

Eight Tips: How To Tell A Scary Story



Here are eight tips on how to write horror from Brad Falchuk, the co-creator of American Horror Story. These pointers come by way of Joe Berkowitz's article "How To Tell Scary Stories, From The Co-Creator Of American Horror Story." (Thanks to +Moxlonibus Krypt, fellow horror aficionado, for sending me the link to the article.) 

1. Start with a big idea.


Think of movie posters. They usually try and communicate one big idea, the idea the movie is based on. Star Wars was swords in space, Indiana Jones was a fearless adventurer, and so on.

The big idea for the first season of American Horror Story was that of a haunted house. It was about how ghosts--and other, hidden, things--can haunt people.

How do you know if your idea is big enough?

- Does your idea immediately suggest characters for the story?
- Does your idea immediately suggest various adventures--or misadventures--that could embroil your characters?

2. Start with a believable situation, then twist it.


Create a scene your audience could easily imagine themselves in.

When I was a teenager I babysat. A lot. So did my friends. For those of you who didn't have the pleasure, babysitting involves a lot of sitting, alone, in a stranger's house after dark. Many times you don't have anything to do except look out into the darkness and imagine what sorts of things it might conceal, and what they might do if they broke into the house.

So, naturally, one of the favorite topics at sleepovers was our fear that someone would break in after dark and go all squicky on us. We talked about gruesome stories we'd heard and scared ourselves silly.

Brad Falchuk says:

"[...] you can imagine being attacked by some kind of monster in your house. It could be nighttime and you hear noises outside, and if you can imagine yourself in some character’s shoes at that moment, it’s scary."

3. Horror is about truth, falsehood and consequences.


Always include a lie; the more, the better.

Brad Falchuk says:

"Scary stories are very much about the idea of truth. What is truth, what is a lie, and what happens when you lie? For me the greatest horror out of anything you do is to lie, and so in any instance of great scary storytelling, there’s a lie. The biggest lie in the more typical horror movies is that you’re safe. You’re out by Crystal Lake, its beautiful there, and don't worry--those murders that happened were a long time ago! They’re not going to happen again! So you're living in a lie and you're going to suffer for it. In almost any great horror story, there’s a lot of lies."

I hadn't thought of it quite that way before, but yes. That.

Horror plays with the comforting lies we tell ourselves: "Sure the house is built over an ancient burial ground but, hey, we got it cheap! I'm sure nothing bad will happen."

Or perhaps a teenager tells her parents she's going to the family's summer cabin to study. Uh huh. Right. And then her (totally sober) friends disturb the spirit of the lake, or they run over someone, and then a gypsy curse is involved and it's all downhill from there.

4. Relationship trouble: real-life horror


The first season of American Horror Story is about infidelity. It's about how people, living people, can haunt our lives and how, sometimes, that doesn't stop after they die.

Memories of people and past events--of opportunities lost--do tend to stick around and pull one back into them when one least expects it.

5. Start an idea for a scary scene and work backward.


This works well for any kind of story. Brad Falchuk says:

"You might have this one thing, like, 'He’s a Nazi doctor doing experiments on people.' Then you just start talking through story points--does this happen? Does that? Once you hit one or two big story points--like, the doctor’s injecting something into the victim’s eyes or he chops off their legs and injects them with this stuff--then you start to think about how the victim got captured by him. What can we do in the scene before this one to make it feel even worse, and where does she end up after this happens?"

Wow. Injecting eyeballs. I'm definitely an amateur.

We're used to thinking about scenes in terms of one flowing into another so it is often less natural to think what the build-up, the preconditions, for a particular scene could be. Reversing the flow of the story, asking not what has to happen now, but what had to happen for this to be the case, is just as effective--sometimes more effective--in creating a gripping tale.

6. Don't be afraid to use tropes in your work, but be sure to put a twist on them.


Audiences often want the same thing as whatever else they loved--just different. Brad Falchuk says:

"You’ve seen the shower scene in Psycho--the shocking moment with the music blasting--and it’s hard to not use those kinds of moments. People come looking for them because they like them--they just want to see a different version."

That's the trick, isn't it? To take the thrills and chills from a great scene and transform it, give it a twist, and make it new but still scary as hell. BF gives us a few tips:

- If it feels too easy then it probably is. 
- Does this scene get you excited? If it does then it'll probably make others feel that way too.

BF tells writers to keep pushing, to go further, and suggests two ways of doing this:

a. Take the trope further along the same lines. The movie Saw did this well. That film wasn't my cup of tea but I have to admit that it pushed squicky torture to a new level.

b. Push the trope in a different direction. "Any time you think left, you go right. The moment when you think this is a great moment for brutality you go into kindness and vice versa."

7. Show the Big Bad in all its hideous glory.


But not too often. One of the reasons Jaws worked so well was the guessing, the not knowing. As BF says, in Jaws you see the severed head float by and imagine the moment of decapitation--and probably do a better job than most special effects departments!--but at some point the audience needs to see the shark, the big white, in all its hideous, low tech, glory. Great movie.

8. Have a big-picture outline.


You want to know where you're headed, even though that can (and usually does) change as you write the story.

You don't have to know every single aspect of the story, just the big picture. BF says that "It’s like driving from New York to L.A.: you know you’re going to get to L.A., but there’s 10 different routes you could take."

I like that analogy.

Again, all quotations are from "How To Tell Scary Stories, From The Co-Creator Of American Horror Story." Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: "Twitham Court Farm B&B" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, June 6

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Part 2 of 2

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Part 2 of 2


This is the second part of my two part series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story. Yesterday I covered points one through seven, let's move on to number eight.

8. Make the stakes clear.


This goes for any story, not just horror stories: make it clear what your character has to gain. Make it equally clear what they have to lose. 

Why is this so important? If the reader doesn't know the stakes she can't fear loss. That's a problem because emotion—fear and anxiety—is exactly what we're trying to produce/create/invoke.

As Chuck Wendig writes: "Fear is built off of understanding consequences. We can be afraid of the unknown of the dark, but horror works best when we know that the dark is worth fearing."[1]

(Tip 11, below, makes a related point. It's important to give the audience an example of how bad your villain is. This not only helps establish the stakes for your hero, but it establishes the villain as someone to be feared.)

9. Create a horrific atmosphere, one that will prime a reader's fears.


One of the key elements in scaring readers—which is what a great horror story must do—is creating a scary atmosphere. Your goal here is to communicate raw emotion.

For me, there's something scary about being in a stairwell, the kind modern office buildings have, the kind that lock you in. You can't get to any other floor from the stairwell, you're trapped inside until you get to the bottom. Combine that with lights going out and strange noises drifting up and, for myself at least, that's one creepy setting.

10. Your character must have hope.


The negative stakes must be clear—the reader/viewer/listener must know how bad it can get—but it is equally important to give the character hope, hope that everything will turn out fine in the end, hope that they'll achieve their hearts desire. CW writes:

"[...] for horror to be horrific, it must also have hope. Unceasing and unflinching horror ceases to actually be horrific until we have its opposite present: that doesn’t mean that hope needs to win out. Horror always asks that question of which will win the day: the eyes of hope or the jaws of hell?"[1]

Usually it's the jaws, but the question needs to seem real and pressing.

11. Show the badness of the Big Bad.


CW writes that dread and revulsion are the beating heart that animates horror, they are the engine that drives (drags) a reader through a horror story.

Dread is about anticipation. Specifically, anticipation of all the nasty things that could happen to your character if they get caught by the monsters. This is why, often, there is a scene early on—a revolting one—that shows how bad the Big Bad can be.

For instance, the villain often does something heinously grotesque to a minor character. This is often played as a gross out scene but it serves a necessary function: it calibrates 'bad'. 

That way, when your hero is put in jeopardy, your reader/audience has something nice, specific, and oh-so-gory to imagine.

(Of course, when the time comes, it won't just be bad—the audience is expecting that—it will be bad multiplied by 100.)

12. The gross out.


People like being grossed out. 

I don't know why. It's something primal. Visceral.

This is true—I accept it as true—even though it isn't true for me. Though I must admit there is a certain oh-it's-an-accident-let's-see-what-happened quality to gross out scenes that's difficult to ignore. (Here's an example of what I mean, it's a scene from Final Destination 5. It's squicky; you've been warned.)

CW mentions, though, and I agree, that ...

"The Squick Factor is not actually a prerequisite for good horror. Some of the best and most insidious horror is devoid of any grossness at all: a great ghost story, for instance, is often without any blood-and-guts."[1]

Take, for example, the movie Paranormal Activity. That movie was shot on a shoestring budget of—wait for it—15,000 dollars. (To help put that in perspective, Sharknado was made for a million and that was considered shoestring.) They couldn't afford special effects and so there weren't any. All the truly hideous things happened offscreen, which worked wonderfully given that the movie was shot with stationary cameras.

This goes back to the earlier point about fear of the unknown. Our imaginations are the best special effect department in the world.

13. The longer the story, the less squicky it should be.


In a short story you can be vivid and in-your-face with the gore but it's impossible to sustain that pace, that intensity of revulsion, for an entire novel. CW writes:

"Horror all but demands you don’t pull your punches, but that kind of unceasing assault on one’s own senses and sanity cannot be easily sustained for a novel-length or film-length project. Hence: short fiction and short films do well to deliver the sharp shock that horror may require."[1]

14. Make them laugh, make them cry.


Weaving comedy into a horror may seem like a wacky idea at first, but think of Scream. Yes, the movie wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but one of the reasons for its success was its somewhat twisted sense of humor, as well as the self-mocking, self-referential, dialogue. CW writes:

"Horror and humor both work to stimulate that same place in our gutty-works, a place that defies explanation. Sometimes you don’t know why you think this thing is funny or that thing is scary. They just are. It’s why it’s hard to explain a horror story or a joke: you can’t explain it, you can only tell it. And both are told similarly: both have a setup, ask a question, and respond with a punch line or a twist."

Humor goes well with any kind of story. For example, Vince Gilligan, creator, writer and producer of the hit TV series Breaking Bad thought of the show as a comedy. A black comedy, sure, but a comedy nevertheless. In one of the Breaking Bad insider podcasts he mentioned that the writers tried to include something humorous in each scene.

15. Sex and death.


CW points out that another duo we often find in horror movies is sex and death. And, under the theory that opposites attract, it makes sense. Sex is ephemeral, transcendent, pleasurable while death is eternal, nullifying and getting there is often painful.

But sex also, in very real ways, contains death within it. As soon as we're born we're condemned to die. As CW writes: 

"We all fear death and so sex—procreative and seductive—feels like an antidote to that, but then you also have the baggage where OMG SEX KILLS, whether it’s via a venereal disease or as part of the unwritten rules contained within a slasher film." 

This is a bit off topic, but I thought the unwritten rules contained in a slasher film were marvelously parodied by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in their movie, The Cabin in the Woods. As you'll remember, the promiscuous blond had to be the first victim.

16. And now these three remain: why, who and what. But the greatest of these is what.


Today I was reading about something Lee Goldberg said at a recent writers' conference:

"Lee said, 'No one remembers the mystery plot of a Monk episode.' We shared a shocked look, sure that wasn’t true. Lee must be wrong. However, he went on to explain that mostly when fans of the series talk about a storyline, they say 'the one where the trash collection workers were on strike' or 'the one where Monk had a look-alike who was a crime boss.'

"His point was that as writers we often think that the backdrop of the story is secondary, but really it's vitally important to the story as a whole. If plot is 'what' the book is about, the backdrop or sub-plot is tightly hooked into 'who' the book is about. And together the what and who make the why, and that’s the trifecta that creates the richness in a series. It's what makes us remember a book and come back to a character."

That quotation was from Much Ado About Something by Sparkle Abbey over at The Stiletto Gang. CW echoes this sentiment:

"You write horror, you’re trying to shine a light in dark corners. Key word there is “trying”—the flashlight needs to be broken. A light too bright will burn the fear away—the beam must waver, the batteries half-dead, the bulb on the verge of popping like a glass blister. It’s like, what the light finds is so unpleasant, you can’t look at it for too long. Look too long it’ll burn out your sanity sensors. In this way, horror isn’t always concerned with the why or the how—but it is most certainly concerned with the what."[1]

17. Write about what scares you.


Let me leave you with CW's closing words:

"Horror needs to work on you, the author. You need to be troubled, a little unsettled, by your own material. Write about what scares you. Doesn’t matter what it is or how absurd—hell, some people think that being terrified of clowns is ridiculous, until you realize how many people find clowns spooky [...]. Dig deep into your own dark places. Tear off the manhole cover and stare down into the unanswered abyss. Speak to your own experiences, your own fears and frights. Shake up your anxieties and let them tumble onto the page. Because horror works best when horror is honest. The audience will feel that. The truth you bring to the genre will resonate, an eerie and unsettling echo that turns the mind upon itself."

If it doesn't scare you, if you're not just a little freaked out about how dark it is in the next room and ... wait. What was that noise? 

(One moment, let me shut my door, I thought I heard something moving around the next room, but that's not possible. I'm the only one home and, besides, nothing human sounds like that. No matter, I'm sure it was only my imagination.)

Links/References


1. (NSFW) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, by Chuck Wendig over at Terribleminds.com.

2.  The thread, What makes a good horror movie, over at AbsoluteWrite.com.



- I didn't use this article when I wrote the above, but I did come across it while I was doing my research: The 5 C’s of Writing a Great Thriller Novel, by James Scott Bell over at WritersDigest.com. Good stuff.

Thursday, June 5

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story

I've reached a point in my WIP where I have to kill off one of my antagonist's minions in a grizzly way and was curious what tips other writers had for creating a gross out scene. Then I thought: Hey! I should blog about this.

That's how this post began, but it's turned into more of an article on how to write a horror story that will terrify readers—at least, that's the hope!

1. The beating undead heart of horror is the knowledge that bad things happen to good people.


Chuck Wendig in his horrifically awesome post, (NSFW -->) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, writes that "Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things." He continues:

"It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats. You feel horror when John McClane sees he’s got to cross over a floor of broken glass in his bare feet. We feel the fear of Harry and Sally, a fear that they’re going to ruin what they have by getting too close or by not getting too close [...]"

Once readers identify with a character that character becomes a bit like their child. Readers want the best for the character while realizing that the best rarely happens. 

It's this tension between what we want for a character and what could happen to that character that fuels the engine of your story and drags your readers through the gory bits toward the end.

2. Your protagonist must make mistakes. Big ones. Mistakes that put their life, as well as their sanity, in jeopardy.


CW writes that "[...] tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps."

Characters need to make bad decisions. I'm not talking about refusing to eat the goodness that is brussel sprouts, I'm talking about (as in the first Scream movie) running outside to escape the psycho terror inside only to be strung up and gutted by the psycho terror outside. Like Lennard in The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation, your character shouldn't be able to catch a break.

CW puts it this way: have characters your reader loves make choices they hate. He writes:

"We recoil at mistakes made by loved ones, and this is doubly true when these mistakes put their lives, souls and sanities in danger."[1]

I pondered CW's words of wisdom and, thinking about the scene I have to write, came up with the following:

Step one: Make the reader care about, identify with, your character.

Step two: Put your character in danger BUT don't have this danger thrust on them. Have the danger descend on your protagonist because of a choice they made.

Step three: Have the decision that puts your character in danger be either selfless or smart (or at least not blindingly stupid).  

We've all seen this: An attractive blond teenager hears an ominous noise outside the house. Moments later the lights stop working. Does our heroine run into the bathroom and lock the door? No. She calls out "Is anyone out there?" and in so doing alerts potential bad guys and gals to her location. But that's not all. She leaves the relative safety of the house to, all alone, go and see what made the mysterious noise. And (of course) she gets slaughtered.

I don't know anyone who would act like this. I wouldn't! If I heard mysterious sounds outside the house and then the power went out, I'd call 911, grab a baseball bat, and lock myself in the bathroom.

That said, yes, your victim should decide to go out and face the danger, but give them a credible reason. For instance, perhaps the protagonist let her dog out into the backyard and she's worried it's hurt. That's a valid—and altruistic—reason to face potential danger. It's something most people can relate to.

(Sorry if I belaboured that point, it's a personal peeve.)

3. Horror: the oldest story.


Horror stories have been around as long as humans. For instance, take a look at 10 Creepy Urban Legends From Around The World over at Listverse.com.

The first storytellers sat around a campfire at night making shadow puppets, telling tales of strong, daring, hunters and the creatures that killed them. (The special effects department was the guy who flicked grape juice at the cave wall as the shadow hunter is skewered by the shadow beast.)

CW writes:

"You want to see the simplest heart of horror, you could do worse than by dissecting ghost stories and urban legends: two types of tale we tell even as young deviants and miscreants. They contain many of the elements that make horror what it is: subversion, admonition, fear of the unknown."

4. Write about what terrifies you.


When researching this article I came across a wonderful thread over at AbsoluteWrite.com about what makes a good horror movie. Here are some of the highlights:

Ways to create a situation that will terrify an audience:

Restrict the character's movement.


For example, trap the character in a cellar, a church, an abandoned hospital, an underground parking garage, an island, and so on. 

Ask yourself, What kind of a confined space scares you? Were you trapped somewhere as a child, unable to free yourself, forced to wait and hope someone would come and rescue you?

The character restricts their own movement.


Think werewolves. Perhaps the character senses they're changing and they don't want the thing they are becoming to harm anyone, so they lock themselves up. In the TV show The Vampire Diaries, Tyler was chained up in a vault underground.

Play on primal fears.


  • The unknown, the dark. A dark staircase or stairwell. 
  • A character is trying to flee then becomes stuck. Perhaps their leg is caught in a trap.
  • The forest at night.
  • Twist the normal. Not everyone can be menaced by a tiki god in Hawaii but everyone has heard a strange, ominous, groan in the middle of the night and felt the hair at the back of their neck stand on end.
  • Horror often plays off of the taboo and off of suppressed emotions.[3]

Don't confuse the audience.


People can either be confused or scared. Not both.

Cheap, but effective, tricks.


In Pet Sematary Stephen King used a cat spitting and jumping into the camera to scare the pants off everyone in the audience. I know, I was there. Some think this is a cheap trick, and perhaps it is, but it was also very fun. My friends rib me about my reaction to that scene till this day.

5. What are your fears?


CW writes:

"The more we know the less frightening it becomes. Lovecraft is like a really advanced version of this. Our sanity is the firelight, and beyond it lurks not sabretooth tigers but a whole giant squirming seething pantheon of madness whose very existence is too much for mortal man’s mind to parse."[1]

Beautiful! And true.

6. What makes you anxious?


Fear is what we hope to provoke in our readers when we sit down to write a horror story, but often we have to make them anxious first. Here are a few things folks are anxious of:

  • Closed spaces. (A sealed stairwell, a locked-down parking garage, etc.)
  • Crowded rooms. (Or stadiums, banks, crosswalks, fairgrounds, etc.)
  • Getting sick, alone. No one finding you.
  • Being assaulted, robbed, etc. Dark parking lots, alleys, etc.

7. What revolts you?


Same as for anxiety. Revulsion is often the precursor of fear. Here are a few things folks sometimes find revolting:

- Snakes
- Insects
- Infectious environments
- Disarticulated body parts.

For a list of squick go here but be warned: once these images are in your mind you can't get them out! I know.

That's it for today. I'll finish my list of 17 ways to write a terrifyingly good horror story tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to the second part of this two part series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association
"In On Writing Horror, Second Edition, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, David Morrell, Jack Ketchum, and many others tell you everything you need to know to successfully write and publish horror novels and short stories."

Writers Workshop of Horror
Winner of the 2009 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction.
Winner of the 2009 Black Quill Award for Best Dark Genre Book of Non-Fiction - Editors' Choice.
"Writers Workshop of Horror focuses solely on honing the craft of writing. It includes solid advice, from professionals of every publishing level, on how to improve one's writing skills. The volume, edited by Michael Knost, includes contributions by a dream-team of nationally known authors and storytellers, many Bram Stoker Award® winners."

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development
"By applying the foundation of the Three-Act Story Structure and then delving even deeper into the psychology of realistic and dynamic human change, Weiland offers a beat-by-beat checklist of character arc guidelines that flexes to fit any type of story."








Links/References


1. (NSFW) 25 Things Your Should Know About Writing Horror, by Chuck Wendig over at Terribleminds.com.

2.  The thread, What makes a good horror movie, over at AbsoluteWrite.com.


- I didn't use this article when I wrote the above, but I did come across it while I was doing my research: The 5 C’s of Writing a Great Thriller Novel, by James Scott Bell over at WritersDigest.com. 

4. Character Flaws: The Ultimate Guide for Novelists
- This article isn't specifically about writing horror, but it does give a nice overview of the importance of a character's flaws. 

Monday, February 17

Best Fonts For Genre Book Covers


One of the most difficult things about creating a book cover is selecting a font. I'll try Impact and maybe Engravers MT and then reach for Lucida and then ... you get the idea. It's a hodge-podge of guesswork. Eventually I'll trip over something that works but there's got to be a better way.

Derek Murphy has come to the rescue. 

DM takes some of the guesswork out of selecting a font by arranging them by genre. His article, entitled 300+ Fool-Proof Fonts to use for your Book Cover Design (an epic list of best fonts per genre), is a keeper.

He includes fonts for the following categories:

- Romance
- Science Fiction
- Thriller
- Fantasy
- Horror
- Paranormal Romance

More good news: many of the fonts are free!

In the image, above, I've included Derek Murphy's font recommendations for fantasy. Head over to DM's site to see the others. A valuable article.

If you liked this article you might also like: How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover.

Photo credit: Fantasy Fonts by Derek Murphy over at Creativindie.com.