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!
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.
There’s nothing quite like a steaming pile of intestines plopping onto the pavement to give your readers a chill. When it comes to graphic details in fiction, the question that writers are faced with is this: when is gore appropriate?
It’s difficult to give you an exact formula for when, where and in what quantity you should let the blood soak through the pages, but I do have guidelines that will help you decide when spilling your characters guts is and isn’t appropriate.
Which is more effective, giving your reader a glimpse of a severed hand or an in-depth descriptions of the raw, ragged flesh, the gnarled tendons and splintered bones? If you have built up the tension and anticipation to a high degree, then a glimpse should be all it takes to get your reader’s heart racing, but if your character has merrily walked around a corner and found the bloodied stump by accident, then a graphic description helps to let the reality sink while they try to recognize it for what it is.
Brutal evisceration’s and rapid exsanguination’s can become exquisite images when well crafted by a writer’s words, but as with all good things, moderation is key. A narrative that depicts countless limbs flying through the air as the chainsaw wielding maniac hacks his way through page after page of screaming men and defenseless women, knee-deep in pools of blood and still beating hearts, splitting heads like melons and painting the walls interesting shades of crimson splattered will flecks of teeth…. well, you see the redundancy. I advise writers to conserve their use of detailed mutilations. Timing is delicate tool, learn to judge when to let the hammer fall so as to maximize its impact.
This is probably your best guideline for deciding on the level of gore to sprinkle in your story. The gothic, soft, psychological and supernatural sub-genres rely on atmosphere and characterization, where as the extreme, slasher and noir stories are geared for maximum impact. Think carefully about how you want your plot to come across. Do you want to plant a dark seed of an idea that ferments in the reader’s imagination, or leave a blood smeared image imprinted on their minds’ eyes?
Imagine yourself as a hunter. Which has more impact for you: machine gunning a herd of buffalo, or silently stalking a single deer until the time is right for that perfect kill-shot?
Shaun Hutson is an author that creates well crafted tales with intense death scenes. The deaths of his characters are all the more prolific because of his keen sense of timing. I recommend his books for those of you hungry writers out there looking for a new read.
Always remember to be more gentle with your readers then you are with your characters! Set the right mood and vibe before you slice and dice.
Names are an important aspect of any character. They help us point out our characters as individuals, give them life and, if we so dream, make them memorable . We can use names to our advantage as they can convey ideas or meanings and, while there are never ‘bad’ names, there are poorly suited ones. The most common mistake in naming a character is choosing a name for the sake of it and not thinking about the consequences, meanings or associations.
Having Ben, Ken, Jen and Len all in one story leaves the reader confused and bored. Make sure that there are variations in your choice of names, not just in sound but in syllables. There are thousands of names to choose from, so don’t settle for the easiest or most common.
When it comes to writing horror, we are bound to come across an evil mastermind or two, and when we do, we hate to find them called ‘Doctor Doom’ or ‘The Evil One’ or even those delightful characters who are known by such painful titles as ‘The One Without a Name” or the “The One We Cannot Name”. Give your mad scientist or crazed biologist a believable name, something that makes them seem a little more real and thus a little more disconcerting for your reader.
This applies to our everyday, ‘normal’ characters as well. John Smith and Jane Doe…? Well, they speak for themselves. Put some effort into finding a decent name and surname. When creating a character, write a back story that mentions their parents and ask yourself what this character’s parents would have named them. Those who raise us play a part in shaping our personality. Think of Johnny Cash’s song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.
When it comes to monsters and creatures, creepies and crawlies, think outside the box. Instead of ‘the blob’, look up the translation in another language, it will mean the same thing but add a little air of mystery for those not in the know.
Changing the spelling of a name can work for or against you. If you change the spelling and manage to keep the right pronunciation, then this can add to your character’s unique identity. However, changing the spelling too much can leave the name open to mispronunciation which can affect the way your reader interprets it.
It is inevitable that great names in history come with certain connotations. Let’s take a prime example: Adolph Hitler. Already thoughts and ideas have come into your mind, most of them presumably negative. Be careful if you take inspiration from the names historical figures, both good and bad, as these will lead the reader to draw conclusions about your characters that have no place in your story. On the other hand, choosing a well-known name can enhance the image of your character, providing that he or she fits the general image.
A little research can go a long way towards authenticity. The popularity of names fluctuates year by year, and names that were common in the 1920’s were not as common in the 1980’s. If your character is 80 years old, do a quick search on the Internet and see what names were common back then. Little aspects such as these can add extra credibility and authenticity to you story.
Don’t be afraid to abbreviate your character’s name, or use their surname as their predominant form of reference. We all give nicknames, drop or add part of a name or (casually or formally) drop the first name completely in everyday life, so there’s no reason why your characters shouldn’t either. A nickname says a lot about the character who has it, and the one who gives it.
So what happens when you can’t find a name that seems right for your character? Don’t settle for just anything, do some looking around: names are everywhere. So where are some good places to find them?
– Fictional name generators (many are available if you do a quick Internet search)
– Baby name websites (these are useful and some offer statistics about popularity, origins and meaning)
– Watch movie credits
– Open a phone book.
– Take inspiration from history (Salem Witch Trials? Titanic?)
Never underestimate the power of a name. We can’t help but associate meanings and ideas to certain names and while we are not always conscious of this, we do it nonetheless. Giving a little extra thought when it comes to naming your characters means that you give your writing that little extra edge.
As writers we sometimes neglect our senses. We spend countless hours absorbed in the two-dimensional worlds of pen and paper, keyboard and monitor, often to the point that we forget the different sensations that the world holds. Our five senses help us to function in the world, but some take precedence over others. Sight and sound are our predominant means of experiencing the world around us, and so we transfer these onto our characters. But what of taste, touch and smell?
The feel of soft velvet, the taste of your favorite chocolate or the smell of a new car, all of these invoke different emotions in different people. As do the taste of rancid orange juice, the smell of a burst drain pipe and the feel or centipede crawling up your leg.They trigger thoughts, memories, emotions and reactions.
Think of fear.
It is strong, primal emotion that affects our bodies as much as our minds. When someone is afraid, their hearts begin to race, they sweat, their hands tremble, they struggle to swallow and breathe. If we step it up a notch, take it to the level of terror, then what happens? On an emotional level they feel helpless, impotent, angry, confused or even a strong sense of disorientation and dissociation from events. On the physical side, their mouth dries up, leaving a metallic or bitter taste, they perspire, they can feel their bowels loosen and smell the warm pee that’s soaking their underwear. Let’s face it, fear isn’t pretty. Don’t be afraid to mention the gritty, unpleasant details when your character has to deal with it.
From a different perspective, consider what your character is confronted with, what is causing them to be terrified. As a writer, you’ll have the image in your mind: a rotting corpse, a Lovecraftian being with flailing tentacles, a crazed killer or a child’s toy wielding a blood smeared knife. Whatever it may be, you can be certain that if that situation were real, smells, tastes and textures would flood the scene. Give your reader a whiff of the decomposing corpse, a taste of blood or make them feel the tightness in their chest as your character struggles to breathe.
Not all senses that invoke fear need to be ‘bad’. That charming little girl next door who has just dismembered your character’s cat could smell of baby powder and candyfloss. The familiar touch of a husband’s caress feels great for his wife, until she discovers the truth about him (serial killer? pedophile? victim of the body snatchers?). The first bite into a fresh apple, the sweet and tart flavors mingling on their tongue, mixing in their mouth as the chew and swallow, only to see half a worm wiggling at the core? The horror of a scene can be intensified by contrasting the every day, familiar and enjoyable with the true nature of the situation.
So go on, give your reader the full sensory experience…
Good writers read. Be it a timeless masterpiece or a trashy novel, every piece fiction has something to teach us. Below I’ve listed five examples of short stories that have something to teach every writer.
“The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson
Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a must read for any aspiring horror writer. Jackson’s power comes from her simple and subtle writing that leads to a brilliantly crafted ending. No supernatural elements here, just a look at the power of tradition in society.
“The Monkey’s Paw” – W. W. Jacobs
Jacobs’ story is a classic that will never lose its impact on first time readers. He weaves a twisted tale around a simple, foreign object and leaves a humble family to cope with the consequences. Everything comes at a price.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This short story is a great example of how fragile the human mind is. Gilman’s use of diary entries creates an intimate and disturbing read as we are shown how quickly a person can descend into madness when faced with a simple fixation
“Green Tea” – Sheridan Le Fanu
Le Fanu is known for mixing the natural with supernatural, and this story is no exception. Is the protagonist suffering from delusions, or are there more sinister elements at work to torture this man.
“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad” – M. R. James
James is at his best with this ghost story. He mixes in a little humor but that does little to deter the ready from the creepy effect of his narrative, resulting in one of the finest examples of his work.
These texts can be found at:
What is a superstition? Some call it a belief in fate or magic, others a coincidence, but regardless of their origin, there are many superstitions out there, particularly those revolving around death and it’s consequences. Basing your story on a superstition, or placing a few discreet portents of doom can add some depth and a sprinkle of foreshadowing to your story.
SIGNS THAT DEATH IS COMING…
A bat that flies around your house three times is an omen of death.
A dropped umbrella in a house is a sign that a murder will take place there.
A white moth inside a house is a portent of death.
When thirteen people sit down for a meal, one of them will die before the end of the year.
If you dream about birth it is an omen of death.
If you cut your nails on a Sunday you’re sure to see blood the next day.
A mirror that falls and breaks of it’s own accord is a sign that someone will die.
If a picture contains three people, the one in the middle will die first.
If you step on a crack you will break your mother’s back.
Six crows seen together are an omen of death.
If a dog howls three times at midnight, death is on its way.
A clock that chimes even though it doesn’t work is an omen of a death in the family.
Looking at your shadow cast by moonlight means you could be the next to die in the family.
When a robin flies through a window into a room, death is following close behind.
When a ceremonial candles blows out, evil is close by.
If a couple owns a cedar tree on their land, and half of it dies, then one of the couple will die soon.
If rats flee from your house, death is on it’s way.
WHEN DEATH HAS COME BUT NOT YET GONE…
The gates of heaven are left open on Christmas eve, so those who die on that night will go straight to heaven.
When a person dies in a house, all windows should be opened and doors unlocked so the soul can escape.
By holding your breath as you walk past a graveyard, you are stopping yourself from inhaling a lost spirit.
If an owl is seen swooping towards the ground on Halloween, it’s collecting souls.
When a candle flame suddenly flickers blue, a ghost is near.
An albatross that flies around a ship that is out at sea is thought to be the spirit of a drowned sailor warning of bad weather to come.
It is bad luck to wear new clothes to a funeral.
It brings bad fortune for a pregnant woman to attend a funeral.
Weeds growing on a grave are sign that that person was evil.
Funerals on a Friday are bad luck.
A woman buried in black will return to haunt her family.
If you have a corpse in the house, cover the mirrors or the person who sees their reflection will die.
A corpse whose eyes are left open will look for some one to take with them.
Now that you know what signs to look out for, will you give your characters a warning of their impending doom, or let them wander helplessly into the icy grip of Death’s hands?