The two hardest stories to do well, in my opinion, are horror and romance. This is because is both genres it is necessary to evoke strong feeling of a very particular kind. I don’t write romance, because it doesn’t interest me (sorry to my wife) but I do like horror. I’ve watched a lot of horror and read plenty too. Here is my set of guidelines for horror.
What is horror?
A good horror story is one that produces feelings of fear, dread and sometimes revulsion in the reader. When reading or watching a horror story, you should get a creeping sense of unease and feel a dark anxiety build. In some ways you could compare it to a tragedy (as in Shakespeare); you know something bad is going to happen and you know the end won’t be nice but you have to see it to the end. In my latest short story I tackled horror and in some ways succeeded and in others, not so much.
Horror set up
Here is how I set up a horror story:
- Introduce the characters: In order for the reader to get the full gut turning effect of a horror, they need to know and care about the characters. This is true for any story, but especially for horror. A good character will make the reader want them to survive, want them to die or want them to find some kind of peace. You can make good use of stereotypes here. For example, set up the typical clueless teen who would normally get eaten by the monster, set up situations for the monster to eat them, then have them escape. The reader will be waiting for their death, hoping for survival, but sure they won’t.
- Set the scene: Introduce all the parts of the scenery, geography and time period that will be important either to the plot or to raising the reader’s level of expectation. Mention of a well in the back paddock where a child had died will make the reader expect something of it. You can go straight to there being a ghost or you can lead the reader to think something terrible will happen in the well then have a character hide in it. The point is that you don’t want to introduce anything that doesn’t increase tension. Word choice is so important here as it will allow you to paint the scene to make it eerie or it will make it fall flat and feel ordinary.
- Isolation: In all good horror stories there is a sense of isolation. It can be literal and physical, like being stuck in a lighthouse during a massive storm, or it can be psychological, like no one believes the main character. You have to cut the main character(s) off from normality, present them in a situation where there is no hope, but you can’t go too far or it will look dopey. Many bad teen horror movies go too far and end up with me asking: “How can they dismiss the character as ‘being drunk’ when there is clearly a mangled and horribly chewed corpse right at their feet?”
- Inter character tension: it is really important to introduce some level of friction between the main characters. They shouldn’t operate as a well oiled machine, or at least not for long. This is an extension of the isolation point. Two people stuck on a raft being circled by sharks will make a reader quiver, but two people who are each thinking of throwing the other into the water with the sharks will make the reader squirm. This is why you need to make sure the characters are well introduced before you crank up the horror.
- Just a little too little revelation: Don’t go all George Lucas on your story. That is, in Star Wars we were quite happy to accept that The Force was simply a mysterious chi like energy that Jedi could manipulate. In episode one George decided he needed to have a scientific test to determine how strong The Force is which lead to the ridiculous revelation that you can catch The Force like the common cold! Talk about removing wonder. Likewise, if you have some aspect of mystery that causes fear, eg: where did the monster come from? Is the serial killer really using magic? Why is the psycho axe-murderer axe murdering? Only reveal enough to horrify the reader. The reader’s imagination will run rife with possibilities and the lack of understanding will heighten their sense of unease.
My horror story
So for the most recent writer’s group meeting we had to write to the theme “winter”. I decided to have a stab at writing horror, because I think it’s nifty, so I tried to use the above points to create a story that would make my wife cry in fear. She didn’t, but she did have a reaction, so that’s good enough.
- Introduce the characters: I introduced the main character, Graeme in the first paragraph. Was he likeable? I hope not. He clearly disliked at least one of the people he worked with.
- Set the scene: Graeme walked through snow to a dome-shaped storage shed, looked north toward Tasmania and thought about “expeditions”. So the snow was white and clean and it was cold.
- Isolation: Graeme was on Antarctica. The ice breaker wasn’t due to come and pick him and his team up until winter, which was still a couple weeks off. Then he gets stuck in the shed as a storm hits.
- Inter character tension: Graeme is stuck in the shed with Marshall, whom he hates because he blames him for the death of his son. This is kind of the central conflict of the story. I could have done it better.
- Just a little too little revelation: There is a monster, it kills people, but I don’t reveal it. I also don’t provide an origin for it. I provide several options, places it may have come from, things it might have been, but I didn’t want the reader to be distracted by the impossible nature of the thing.
Did it work?
Well, it worked to an extent. My wife, when I read it to her, gasped and said “He isn’t going to leave him, is he?” at about the right point, so that was good. My writing group provided plenty of feedback regarding the tension, pace and character development that I will put back into the story and then I’ll release it here so you can comment, if you like.