Introducing a new author for the Writers Anon blog. James Churchill specialises in writing screenplays, but also writes short stories and interactive fiction. He’s a horror geek, so in honour of Halloween, James is drawing back the veil on writing tales that terrify.
Writing horror isn’t as scary as it sounds. It’s a genre that carries the same methods of writing as a whole, but there are some extra things you have to remember in order for it to work. Here is a selection of tips and advice that covers generating ideas, crafting longer stories and writing mechanics.
What scares you?
This is the best place to start with an overall idea. What is the most frightened you’ve ever been? What irrational fears do you have? What is something that is a given in your life? What if that suddenly changed? All these questions are great places to start for a horror premise.
If you write about a topic that scares you, that fear will translate onto the page and into the minds and souls of your reader. Chances are that whatever you are afraid of will be shared by others, making it relatable. And if it is a horror few others have, then you can introduce them to a new realm of terror and destroy their vision of a safe world. Lovely.
Look at what’s in front of you, or inside
Anything that seems normal to you can be a brilliant source of horror. If you can make something regular scary, it can be more frightening as it feels close to home. A great example is modern technology. The fact that you’re reading this on a screen is a good indicator of that. We have technology surrounding us all the time and it’s constantly evolving. Take a second to think about a device you use frequently. What is the scariest thing the device is capable of? What if you were sent texts that predicted your every move or thought? Also, what are your fears about where technology could take humanity? These are questions which can also spark great ideas. Ring by Koji Suzuki used the concept of video tapes and television as a way for horror to manifest itself as it was the big technology of the time.
Know the rules of your horror
Even though horror can bend and shape reality, you need to know the rules of what’s possible and impossible in the world you create. A large part of the fear for the reader comes from the sensation that they, or the character(s) involved in the story, don’t know what’s going on. The truth is, you know what’s happening as a writer. A specific example of this could be what a certain monster or spirit is capable of. When you know the rules of your horror this helps enormously with pacing, as you can carefully measure what details you show to your reader and how the mystery of it slowly unravels. You can also use this to create more scares as you mis-lead your reader, setting up twists and turns.
Use your point of view
Although the point of view is important in any fiction writing, it can have a huge impact on the quality of a horror story. Each point of view has its own advantages and disadvantages in the way they communicate horror to the reader and the effectiveness of each one largely depends on the type of story, or type of horror, you are trying to convey. For example, adopting a first person view allows you to directly enter the mind of a character, making the horror feel more immediate. An omniscient style of narration allows you to juggle multiple characters whilst the audience is unaware which characters will survive. You can also jump between perspectives. A great example of this is in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde where the explanation of the entire story is written from Jekyll’s perspective in the form of a document. It’s effective because it carries a great sense of irony as it is already too late for anyone to save Jekyll.
Don’t coddle your audience
Horror is horror for a reason. It is meant to scare. So be as horrible and terrifying to your reader as you like. Strangely enough, they’ll like you more for it! And sometimes the best accolade a horror story can have is that it’s too scary to read.
Remember: it’s your tale
These tips are should hopefully make writing horror seem less scary, or inspire thoughts of your own. The most important thing is that you should carve out your own voice and intention within the genre. Who said the protagonist needs to overcome the horror? Who said that death is the worst fate a person can suffer? And who said that it had to be fantastical or supernatural? The simple horror of a parent losing their child in a supermarket is just as valid, as is every idea or approach.
Or perhaps you wish to combine it with another genre? Or is there something that you wish to read that hasn’t been written yet? A book which you know you could fix? If so, write it. As always, the methods you employ to craft your stories still apply. They’re like water; you’re just pouring them into a different glass. And if you’re feeling really adventurous you can go totally nuts and smash the glass. Go where you want to go. As long as you know why and what you want to achieve, you should have an interesting story with your own touch at the end of it.
But remember: have fun and get scared witless while doing it!
The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
Ring – Koji Suzuki
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Misery – Stephen King
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Books of Blood – Clive Barker