For the month of October, I felt it would be inspiring to have a Writing post focused on one of my favorite times of the year: Halloween! A holiday filled with ghosts, monsters and stories about the paranormal. By the time this entry goes online, I will most likely have begun my yearly ritual of indulging in a plethora of horror movie marathons.
It was a dark and stormy night...
Horror is changing. Readers have grown so accustomed to the same old classics of horror, such as vampires, ghosts and werewolves, that they have become numb to them. In order to stay relevant today, horror stories need to feed on the fears of those who are reading it. They must have some level of plausibility and originality in order for the audience to connect with them. If the writer succeeds in making terror feel lifelike, be it about a subject as realistic as spiders or as fictional as zombies, then the audience will accept it could happen and be drawn into the story.
So how exactly does one achieve the “scare factor”? The fundamentals of horror are fear, tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming them. Unlike horror movies, where tone is set with the use lighting, music, “jump scares” and visual effects, writers are limited to using words alone to frighten their audience. How do we get a reaction from our readers when they can't see or hear what is happening? The trick is to jog the reader's imagination, helping them visualize the story by feeding them the appropriate information or exploiting their other senses (for more information see my post Showing and Telling). This is achieved in storytelling with the use of vivid settings, strong characters, worthwhile conflict and a compelling plotline. Let us explore the following four categories and see how they contribute to the horror genre.
The characters are the writer's most important tool, as they are the link between the reader and the story. In order for characters to properly serve their purpose, the audience must be able to identify with them on some level. When the readers feel connected to the characters, they will care for what happens to them.
Characters also serve as translators of the world around them, as their reactions help readers better interpret what is happening. This is a key component to the horror writing process, because by being privy to what goes on in the character's head, the audience can share their experience. Horror is best reflected through character reactions in three ways: the mind (with reactions such as confusion or going insane), the heart (with feelings such as despair or dread) or the gut (with sensations such as paralysis or pain).
Finally, tragedy is best portrayed through the protagonist in the form of character flaws. These flaws help build up suspense and tension, as imperfect characters usually will make bad decisions, leading to costly mistakes and possibly their downfall. A popular example would be the ditzy blonde who dies in the beginning of horror movies, usually because she makes a series of bad decisions. Though this example has been used to death, it serves an important purpose besides building tension; it serves as a precursor. This builds anticipation in the readers, as they will expect the same result to be repeated with other characters.
A creepy setting is a great tool to create atmosphere. Remember that human beings, like animals, are biologically programmed to fear the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable or the uncomfortable. The right atmosphere is crucial when writing a horror story, as it help instill tension in the audience. With this in mind, a writer can set the appropriate mood by playing around with the various aspects of the setting (like locale, geography, time and weather).
Some locations will affect certain readers differently. Places such as cemeteries, swamps, abandoned towns or old buildings have an innately eerie quality to them. If your story takes place in a safe or homely environment, you can darken its mood by having it happen during the nighttime or a thunderstorm storm. You can also choose a location based on a popular phobia in order to target a specific audience. If you want to scare people with claustrophobia, then have the story take place on a submarine or in the subway. To target people with ornithophobia, have the story take place in an aviary or a pet store. To scare people with achluophobia, write a story taking place in caves or in space. If there is a phobia for it, odds are a story can be made of it.
The right background detail placed in the environment in a specific manner can also contribute to the stories mood. As an example; imagine going on vacation at a prestigious location, staying in a luxurious hotel room. Now imagine finding an eyeball on the floor of said hotel room. Your perception of the surroundings automatically shifts from excitement to dread.
***Note: Though using blood and viscera has been a staple in horror for a long time, it is important to note it is not required to instill fear in the audience. Use gore and violence sparingly, as excessive amounts may desensitize the reader to your content.***
Conflict is at the centre of all fiction and without it, a story has no goal. In literature, conflict is the interaction between two opposing forces, that must struggle against each other to achieve their contradictory objectives.
This still applies to horror, however the components of the conflict will take on a darker tone, better supporting the earlier statement of tragedy being one of the fundamentals of horror. We can see these differences by taking a look at the stories objectives, which will seem impossible to obtain, or at the obstacles, which will seem unfair. We get a good understanding of this concept by looking again at the clichéd example from horror movies; the ditzy blonde struggling to survive against an armed psychopath.
Finally, every conflict in a horror story should be accompanied with life or death consequences. These high stakes is the best way to set an even higher level of tension.
***Note: Creating tension is important, but so is creating a feeling of safety. Readers will get tired of stories that try to constantly keep them on edge. Creating a balance between anxiety and normalcy will make it easier to catch readers off guard. ***
Also known as the villain, the Antagonist is the character(s) who opposes the Protagonist and creates the conflict in the story. They represents the obstacle that the Protagonist must overcome in order to succeed.
In horror, the role of the antagonist will often outshine the part of the protagonist. This phenomenon is extremely common in scary movies, with examples like Frankenstein, Dracula or the Wolfman taking center stage, as opposed to adventure stories where protagonists like Robin Hood, King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes are the focus of attention. This supports the idea that in order to have a good horror story, you need to start with a good antagonist!
Keep in mind that readers today are looking for something new, different or an unusual twist. To better take your readers by surprise, don't show too much of the antagonist too soon. The unknown is always more frightening than the familiar, so keep the readers guessing.
In closing, one piece of advice that other writers often gave me was to write what I know. Writing from personal experience is a good way to make your stories more compelling, and this remains true to horror. Concentrating on what scares you, then finding the right way to express it is a good way to start your own tale of terror!
Thank you all for dropping by, and I wish you all a Happy Halloween!