It’s been a while since I last posted, and much has happened in that time. I’m currently writing my thesis for my MA in Literature and Creative Writing. It’s a collection of short stories that will be accompanied by a critical essay, and in this essay I have to explore why I write what I write. The questions I’m thinking about now, and I’d love to hear people’s answers to, are why do we write horror? Why not tell the same story in another genre? Or can horror stories be told in any other genre? I’d love to hear your thoughts…
Think of writing horror as being a magician. You don’t want to reveal all your tricks at the start of the show and then have the crowd walk out halfway through. You also don’t want the opposite to happen – bore the reader while you delay your climax so that they drop the book before the action starts.
Timing and pacing are different. Pacing involves varying the tempo and setting your reader on a ride much like a roller-coaster, with ups and downs, twists and turns. You can use each little event to create a knock-on effect where the tension multiplies and grows until your reader is sitting on the edge of their seat with anticipation of what’s to come.
You need to start off with simple tricks that grow in complexity until your climax. Think of each scene in your short story or chapter in your novel as a different trick in a magic show which add up to creat the whole performance. Imagine yourself on stage and how the audience responds to your actions. Do you need half-naked girls and giant bursts of flame to make the show look good, or will the audience be amazed by the act without the setup?
Keep impressing the reader with your illusions and sleight of hand. Make each trick more difficult than the next until you reach the show stopping climax. But remember to save one or two tricks for the dénouement. Dont let your story fizzle out after the bang, throw in a twist that will leave your reader questioning what they see around them and sleeping with the light on.
Timing is knowing when to have the boogeyman jump out of the closet. You use pacing to build suspense but having your crazed cannibals eat the brave explorers too soon will negate the tension that you’ve worked so hard building. Spending too much time setting up a scene can leave your readers time to predict what will happen or to lose interest in the scene. Just how long can you have the crazed serial killer stalking the protagonist from room to room in the abandoned hotel before it loses its impact?
The question of timing comes down to skill. As a writer, you will have to assess how much (or little) you need to set up your scene before the climax. This comes with practice and requires a certain skill – much like a magician who plans her act before the performance. Don’t be afraid to use misdirection and illusions, all great tricks use these, there is no real magic behind it.
So go on, give your work some thought and put on a show that entices, amazes and terrifies your reader!
Having a hard time getting your story to the level that you want it to be at? Struggling to sell it or to get positive feedback? As writers, we often feel too strongly about some things and not strongly enough about others, so a fair amount of errors can be grouped under ‘over doing it’ or ‘ under doing it’.
Here are some of the common mistakes that writers make:
Over doing it:
Drama, drama, drama:
One of the keys to good fiction is keeping your characters believable. Having your characters react with a violent whirlwind of emotions to every event in your plot will be overkill. Frantic panic over missing a bus, violent outrage over being short-changed or a suicidal rant over spilt milk may have their place in some stories, but not in most. Having your characters react as normal people do will be enough for your readers.
In the beginning…
Going into long drawn-out descriptions of place and time can be difficult not to do, especially when your story is set in the past or the future. A story set in the year 2245 doesn’t need a summary of the world’s political history or your character’s ancestry. The same goes for one set in 1036 BC. A few simple bits of information, a date and some differing aspects mentioned are enough to get the reader’s mind going. Think about it, what type of world comes to mind when imagine the year 13 BC?
If you read through your work, especially if it is a longer piece, you may find that you have repeated yourself. A character’s wants, needs and motivations do not need to be retold every time they come into play. The time and setting do not need to be described and explained over again. Think of a story that you’ve read, how much of what you imagine is told to you? One or two descriptions may work fine, unless something changes in them.
We all love a memorable character now and then, one who is unique and flamboyant; who goes against the norm, but not all your characters can be this way. A reader often enjoys a story because they relate to the characters, and they relate to the characters because they find similarities between themselves and the character. Let’s face it, most of us are pretty ordinary, so when we read about a multi-billionaire losing his or her fortune, are we as sympathetic towards them as we would be towards a hardworking, average person like ourselves losing every cent?
While obscure details can sometimes be useful for adding depth to your descriptions, if they are irrelevant they will do more harm than good. Describing a character’s socks can be informative if it relates to the story (especially if the character is describing their own socks – it says a lot), describing them for the sake of filling up the pages wastes time, space and can bore, if not confuse, your reader.
We all fall into this trap every now and then, and perhaps we can be forgiven for doing so once or twice. More than that becomes embarrassing. The golden sunset, the dead of night, the racing heartbeat, all of these sound familiar for a very good reason: they’ve not only been used before, but they’ve been used too often! Make friends with your thesaurus, it’s more useful than you’d think.
Under doing it:
You won’t have much of a story if nothing happens. Starting off the action is as important as keeping it going, so make sure to pace your story well and to keep your characters on their toes. Also remember that things should happen for a reason, your character shouldn’t just up and join the circus without purpose or motivation.
Forgetting about your other characters
While a plot tends to centre on the protagonist, don’t neglect your other characters in terms of growth and change. New writers tend to focus too much on the protagonist and how they are affected by events, but how do these events affect your antagonist and secondary characters? How do changes in your protagonist influence the other characters and vice versa?
Lights, camera, action!
In an effort to tell the story as well as possible, we can lapse into a factual, lecturing tone where we describe events instead of writing them. Remember to set the scene, the mood, the emotions that are involved in your incidents so that they seem more real and less like a chapter from a textbook. It might help to think of your scene as part of a film: what you would blend into a film scene can be added into your written scene.
Too set in your ways?
It’s not often in life that people experience something and come through unscathed. Be it based on love, horror, drama, fear or action, any major incident will shape and change part of us. We grow and learn every step if the way, and so too should your characters. The ebb and flow of your plot should shape your characters like sand on a beach, gently or violently, but always constantly.
What is the point of your story? What is the meaning or message behind it? Are you telling a story for the sake of telling it, or is there something in it that the reader will take away with them once they have read your work? If there is, and there probably should be, then make sure this comes out subtly in your work.
Not enough planning
Before you sit down and start to write your story, do some planning. Work out the smaller details such as character motivations, plot structure and even do a little technical research before you begin. You may have the beginning and the end in mind, but what happens in between? Having a map makes a journey easier to complete, and every story you write is a journey of its own.
Writing a horror story that is based on a ‘monster’ can be difficult. Gone are the days where readers are shocked by an amorphous blob, a resurrected dinosaur or a giant gorilla. Today’s readers’ need something more, they need a fine balance between something that is both ‘real’ enough to be possible and strange enough to be scary.
This is where the field of cryptids can work to your advantage. Cryptids are animals whose existence has not been confirmed by science. Bigfoot, Nessie and The Yeti, amongst others, fall into this category. Most people are inclined to write these off as tall tales, but a grain of truth must exist somewhere amongst the decades of reported sightings.
The key to writing these types of stories is to remind your readers about this. We’re not talking about a once off sighting, these cryptids have been seen multiple times by a wide variety of people. Don’t let your reader forget this!
How do you take a ‘monster’ that’s been the brunt of many jokes and turn them into something? You concentrate less on the monster and more on how you tell your story.
There’s no need to tell your reader from the start that this monster is what it is. As soon as you say Big Foot, your reader’s mind is filled with connotations that could lead that stop reading or trudge along through your story, not expecting much to come of it. So be subtle and focus on the character and setting before you start labeling your monsters.
Be cautious about what characters you choose for your plot. For example, if you’re writing about Nessie, try not to make your character a die-hard skeptic who learns the hard way or a fearless believer out to prove Nessie’s existence to the world. We all known to what end those stereotypes come. Unless you’ve got a brilliant twist up your sleeve, avoid those two stereotypes. Spend a little time considering who would be the right person for your plot, it will work to your advantage.
This will be one of your most important tools in these types of story. You can use atmosphere to increase tension and anticipation, to set the scene and reel your readers in before you unleash your pet in it’s glory.
I’ve mentioned the most common cryptids, but do a search or two on the Internet and you’ll find that a lot of countries have their own mysterious creatures. Many of them are lot more strange and creepy than the well known ones.
Cryptids are an elusive group, often reported but these reports are seldom accompanied by conclusive evidence. It’s the same situation about horror stories about them, many stories have been written about them, be we struggle to find ones that can prove how terrifying these creatures can be.
Where do ideas come from? This question haunts every writer at some stage or another in their career, and never so intensely as when they can’t think of anything to write! People often say that ideas are everywhere, which is great when you’ve got some, but when you don’t, that answer only compounds your frustration.
Horror writers face an even more difficult task. Not only do we need inspiration for ideas, but we need those ideas to contain a seed of a fear that we can nourish and grow. Here is a list of some places where you can find ideas, but remember, it’s not what you read or hear, rather it’s case of how you receive the information and use it to your advantage.
Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or go online. The news is a great place for finding our genre specific ideas. I’m not talking about front page headlines but those little articles nestled away in the middle. They seem a little bizarre, a little off kilter, and sometimes we wonder how they even ended up making the news, but if you sit down and think about it, there’s a story waiting in the wings. Ask yourself what made the publisher decide to place that article, and you’ll realize that it has more to do with the bizarre, macabre or downright strange aspects of the story than it has to do with its value as an informative news article. Everyone loves a little snippet of mystery now and then.
For example, I once read an article about a 71-year-old woman who went a bit nuts and started smashing her car into others. Seems straightforward enough: she must be senile. Then I started thinking about what could really have taken place, and some interesting plot ideas came to mind. Find the article at:
If you listen with your writers’ ear, you’ll hear a tale or two worth writing about. We often write off gossip and urban legends as not worth listening to, but who knows where those stories can take you? That friend of yours who told you a story about his cousin who had an uncle who knew a guy who found a woman dead in her apartment and her cats and been eating her body to stay alive may be doing more than trying to gross you out. He could be giving you the basis of for a great story. How did she die? Who was she? And what was with all those cats?
To some of you it will be odd to think that as a writer I have started carrying a camera around. To others it will make perfect sense. You never know what you’ll see when you leave your house, and having a camera to snap a quick scene will help you savor that information for later. Take a look at the picture above: it seems a little arbitrary, but if you take a closer look you’ll see the back of an ambulance, a couple of men standing by a lake looking bewildered. What’s going on that picture? A body found, a person lost or drowned? Perhaps they were called out to a scene or saw something from a distance but when they got there whatever they saw had gone. The options are many and intriguing.
If you don’t have a camera, then keep your eye open for pictures in magazines, books or online. If something catches your eye, then save it. You never know where your imagination will take you when let it.
Apart from being an amusing game to play, it’s a great resource for ideas. You could be at work, at school, in the shower or in a restaurant, any place at all will do. The trick is to ask yourself ‘what if…’ You’re driving in your car, it’s late at night and the road is quiet. What if you: hit someone (or something), see a body in the road, a shadow in your rearview mirror, bright lights in the sky or feel a hand grip your shoulder even though you’re alone in the car? What if your car breaks down, you get a flat tire, your phone rings, your vision starts to blur? The options are endless. Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you…
The truth is: ideas are everywhere. They lurk inside everyday events, they’re rustling between the lines of news reports and they blatantly strut around in broad daylight. It’s up to you as a writer to take a different look at your surroundings and find the fear that’s nestled in the familiar settings around you.
How well do you know your characters? Are they just there to advance your plot, or do they have a history, a meaning, a purpose? Getting to know your characters will help you to add depth and motivation to your characters. Writing a back story for your character will allow you to get to know some vital information about who they are, where there come from and thus why they do what they do.
Here are some exercises to help you get better acquainted with your characters:
Many people advise you to create a past for your character, but I suggest that you take it a step further and imagine that you are in an interview with them. Ask them where they came from, where were they born, what were there parents like, how did they do at school, etc. As you’re picturing the interview, think of how they are dressed, what they look like and how they act. By imagining their response you’ll gain information from both what they say and how they say it.
What’s in their…
Take an object such as a car, or a handbag, or a place such as their bedroom or office. What’s in it? If your character works in an office, then what does it look like? Is the room spotlessly tidy, organized chaos, or a just a mess? Are there old coffee cups lying around, or perhaps a bottle of gin hidden in the filing cabinet? What do they keep in their desk? Only work related items or perhaps a listening device to record conversations with clients? The tiniest detail can tell you volumes about their personality.
Design a CV or résumé for your character. What information would they put on it? Would they give references and contact numbers, or would they lie about their education and working experience? Is it handwritten, one page or ten pages? Do they make it look professional, or cover it with flamboyant borders and bright colors? Each option that your character chooses will reveal information to you much as a normal résumé will reveal information to a potential employer.
You don’t need to incorporate every aspect of your character’s back story into your plot. That much information would end up confusing and boring your reader. These exercises are designed to help you understand why your characters do what they do. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know a real person. Once you get to know bits of information about where they come from and how they got here, then you can begin to understand what drives them to do what they do and act the way they act. Understanding where your characters come from will increase your ability to explain to the reader what motivates and drives the characters, which in turn gives your readers a better ability to relate to your characters.