Ciao, SEers. Staci here. It’s October, which means I’m getting more than my fix of all things horror. I love the genre… the tingling sensation on my spine, the chills on the back of my neck, the racing pulse. I read and watch horror for the abject thrill of it all.
Unfortunately, because I’m an editor by trade, I have trouble turning off my inner critique-mode, and I watch and read this genre with a metaphorical red pen in my hand.
Film has a few tricks at its disposal that the written word can’t capitalize on. Writers can’t use a creepy soundtrack to build tension. They can’t use camera angles and dim lighting to mount suspense. (And yes, I realize some of that is POV, but the POV character can’t notice something he or she isn’t supposed to see… like the chainsaw-wielding psychopath standing in the shadows just outside the door.)
But there are certain things universal to all horror stories, whether film or page. There are also certain things that should always be avoided.
Things That Work
- Isolate your characters from the rest of the world.
People are far more likely to be frightened if they’re somewhere that’s cut-off from the rest of society. (AKA, from safety.) You know, being at Crystal Lake without camp-goers is more frightening than being at Daytona Beach for spring break.
- Start with anxiety before fright.
It’s a lot harder to buy into a scary plot when we’re thrust into it. Take time to let the uneasy feelings have a slow burn.
- Make things be out of place, but then the hero forgets about it.
- Use suspicious sounds that, when investigated, turn out to be innocent. Yet that sense of foreboding remains…
- Split people off from the pack. It’s one thing for the group to be alone in a town or building. It’s another for a single person to be separated from the group.
- If anxiety is a slow burn, embrace something more overt for instant impact.
Everyone has fears. Whatever the main character’s phobia is—darkness, spiders, small spaces—introduce it after the anxiety has worked its magic. That will ramp up the fear factor instantaneously.
- Decide who, if anyone, will live. And then write it that way.
Sometimes it’s anyone’s guess who will make it to the end because all the characters are the same. (Stupid kids partying in a deserted camp by a lake.) Someone needs to be differentiated so readers have someone to root for.
Things That Don’t Work
- A villain with no motivation.
Even the criminally insane have a reason for what they do. A mindless monster killing everything that moves isn’t believable. Something made him that way. You know, like drowning in Crystal Lake because the teenagers were partying too hard to notice a floundering swimmer. Doesn’t matter how he came back to life. Doesn’t matter that he grew up after coming back from the dead. Doesn’t matter that it’s a different group of teens he’s after. If we know the motivation, we’ll believe.
- A too-stupid-to-live character.
You know… the blonde girl who runs up the stairs instead of out the door. Or the jock who goes outside—without a weapon—when he hears a strange noise. AFTER his friends have already started disappearing. These characters are too stupid to live, and they usually don’t. Make your characters’ actions fit the situation so readers don’t root for their demise.
We might not be able to see the darkness, the isolation. But, if written correctly, we can feel it. Experience it. Don’t write your characters into a white room of confusion. Exploit the setting for maximum tone and fright.
I don’t think it matters if you’re writing a real-world tale (think Jack the Ripper), a demonic fright-fest (think The Exorcist), or something unnatural that requires suspension of belief (think Friday the 13th). If you have proper tone, motivated villains, and logical heroes, you’ll have a good story on your hands. It’s only when you don’t set the scene, don’t make the villains the heroes of their stories, and don’t make the heroes’ actions make sense that the tale falls apart.
Then again, isn’t that true for all genres?
Okay, what do you think? What makes a good horror story? Or what makes you throw your hands up in frustration? Let’s talk about it.