Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org).
I am pleased to welcome guest, Barbara McDowell for the Literary Genre Blog Series running through February, March and into April. Barbara is going to let us in on the Horror genre, what the subgenres are and how to really make the readers’ hair stand on end. I’m slowing backing away, its all your Barbara.
Why Horror? For most horror writers, I’m sure this question has been asked of them in varying forms: “Why would you want to write about stuff like that?” “You seem so normal, how’d you come up with that idea?” Sometimes the questions come with inquisitive stares or people making jokes about what you might have hiding in your trunk or basement. What? Like I’m going to tell you.
What is considered Horror?
Over the years the general umbrella of horror has taken a beating and been relegated at times to being a third-eyed cousin, left to eat scraps by a tree, at the literary family reunion. Some don’t look past the content to see the craft. Even now, there are some disagreements over a perceived push to label books under many of the subgenre names versus the simple title of horror.
The Horror Writers Association notes that “horror, by nature, is a personal touch—an intrusion into our comfort levels. It speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand.” Horror is a feeling of fear that is delivered to the reader and can include elements of tension and suspense. It latches into their imagination and as it grows and spins for them, it is customized with elements they infuse from their own life experiences.
With horror, there is no true sense of safety. Even those not physically being tormented in a story can face a level of psychological turmoil. As a horror writer, you are taking people to the base level of their deepest, primal fears. You are invading their senses and carrying them along for a wicked ride.
When horror is done right, I want you to never look at your office building, coworkers, local coffee shop or even church the same again. The majority of my stories tend to fall under what is called “quiet horror” or “psychological horror.”
Quiet horror is where the mood and sense of dread are more understated. Psychological horror has different levels of crazy, disturbed people. Think of Shirley Jackson’s masterful The Lottery for an example of quiet and Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs for psychological.
An Overview of Some Other Horror Subgenres
Please note that the following are not absolute definitions (we writers regularly argue about such things) and there can be several crossovers and blends of these subgenres. Just keep in mind that where a story falls boils down to writer intent. If the primary focus is to deliberately scare, unsettle or evoke a slow building, emotional reaction of fear, chills and terror, you have horror.
Classic – Some also interchangeably call this Gothic. This typically refers to stories capturing basic, well-known and used monsters. The setting and tone are a key highlight. Think about dark, haunted mansions with cobwebs, creaking staircases and airy attics. There is a sense of restraint and old-world charm. Some even say there is an element of romance included. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein falls here. Others toss vampires, zombies, ghosts and werewolves are part of this group as well, but there is a thought that those fall under supernatural.
Supernatural – This captures tales that occur outside of the conventional bounds of our world. Ghosts, black magic, witches and all types of demons land in this world. Consider Stephen King’s Carrie and her telekinetic powers gone wild.
Dark Fantasy – Defined as a story with fantastical elements that also has a distinct element of horror, some argue that this is a murky area. It also blurs into supernatural. Think of the musical Little Shop of Horrors; the story of a man’s twisted relationship with a plant that requires blood to survive. A man is tricked into, but at times is happy, about feeding an alien-talking plant human blood. I remember watching with an increasing dread of just how far this guy was morally going to go. Some would put Stephen King’s Dark Tower series under this subgenre.
Splatterpunk – Isn’t that word just fun to say? Break out some buckets of blood, guts and gore for this area. This one for me is a high level of repeated shock and awe. It’s graphic and without limits. Check out Clive Barker’s Books of Blood.
So Where Do I Get Started?
Good, good. I see that some of you are considering trying your hand at playing with some scary bits. Trust me, you will have fun and maybe even become hooked.
Plot – All the cool descriptions, witty evil dialogue and tension mean nothing without a core story structure that builds towards the climax and resolution. If the reader is going on the terror ride with you, there should be a point.
In writing horror short stories, I often start off with an idea with “what ifs” in my mind. What if a killer kidnaps another killer? What if the priest is a demon? What if they are brewing something naughty in the coffee drinks? The storyline could come first or a character. Next, I typically figure out how it’s going to end and what my twist is (more on that below). Then the climax is where things get kind of dicey in horror.
Tension and suspense – To be successful with this, a level of control is needed. Horror is built. The show don’t tell rules come into play as you don’t want to pull up the curtain and tell the reader what’s going on up front. You slowly introduce the characters and take the reader along the winding tracks.
Our goal as horror writers is to not only get you interested in the story, but to grip you into the twisted world so that you’re believing and feeling that what’s happening is in real time. If there is a person tied up in the back of a car, I want you feeling the rope, hot leather seats and dreading what it might mean when the car stops. Part of the beauty of what makes terror in an ordinary situation work is the believable realization that “yikes, that could happen!”
Characters – In getting a story to touch people on an emotional level, the characters must be believable. We need to buy into the fact that these people will talk and act this way when things go bad. If a family starts being terrorized by an unseen force, there could be someone who freaks and can’t handle the stress, someone else might be in denial and explain away all of the events, and another might try to fix it or save everyone. Having a stock group of people who all react the same way will make some readers roll their eyes. When shown the varying emotions and reactions, readers can relate.
In a similar vein, strive to not have a one-note bad guy. When people are interviewed in neighborhoods after a serial killer is identified, they say things like “oh, he was so nice. I never would have imagined him doing such a thing.” Or “but he worked in the church office.” Or “he loved children and made them gifts.” Evil folks can have hobbies and do nice things. Now the motivation might be skewed, but the point is that both human and supernatural monsters are more than one-dimensional.
Endings – No matter how crafty you’ve been with your gore splatter or poetic spinning of suspense, a story can still fail by leaving the reader disappointed. I remember being thrilled reading Carrie when she exacts her revenge and I knew her actions could not mean a positive ending for her. I would have felt letdown if she’d been allowed to graduate with honors and make it to a beautiful college campus.
If you’ve built up a high-level of doom and gloom, you can’t just walk away with a happy ending resolution of it being a dream and everyone being okay. Maybe the ending is that no one makes it. Or the monster wins. Or the hero solves the situation, but loses friends and family along the way. Once you’ve amped up your readers’ emotions, they want and deserve an honest payoff.
With endings in horror, you also want to leave some loose ends in the reader’s imagination. Don’t answer all of the questions or tie up all of the loops. Having the reader left with a few curious “whys” will allow the story to resonate. Now I’m not saying to leave gaping holes or have interesting pieces that are introduced and never returned to (like a crazy cousin who eats ears mentioned in chapter five and six who then disappears). Force feeding too many telling details will shut down the bridge the reader has made into your world.
A final thought on endings is the idea of having a twist. As both a writer and reader of horror, I’m a big fan of “oooh, didn’t see that coming” elements throughout and in a story ending. Readers of horror want to be surprised because that will amp up the terror and scare factor. It just needs to be done with care or it can be perceived as an unbelievable trick. The key is to weave in clues and to introduce story points where someone can go back and review and go “oh, yeah I see how this could happen” versus a “come-out-of-nowhere” surprise.
For example, I’ve written a story where a woman is going on a journey with her sister back down to their family’s church. Her goal is to exorcise the real and/or perceived demons that have possessed her as a result of accidentally killing their grandmother. The twist ending is that we find out her sister is dead in the passenger seat. I leave the loose end of whether her sister was killed intentionally or by accident for the reader to have fun with. The surprise ending works because there are earlier clues about the dysfunction and spites within the sibling relationship, the “tools” gathered prior to the road trip (like gloves and sleeping pills), them having an altercation and the woman doping her sister’s oatmeal.
Are you a horror writer? Do you have any subgenres that you prefer to work in? Are there other elements that you include when writing a horror story? What’s the scariest horror story or movie you’ve ever seen?
By day, Barbara McDowell works in training and development, managing the educational needs and course development for the staff of a regional accounting firm. In the depths of the night, she is a crafter of stories birthed with dark, human themes. Suspense at each corner turned. Terror sometimes waiting at the end. Initially a short story writer, Barbara is writing her first novel that focuses on the twists of redemption and forgiveness. A lover of coffee, cats, crime dramas, crochet, conspiracy theories and chocolate, Barbara can be found blogging at Life Can’t Drive 55 or tweeting at @BMcDowellOH.
See the schedule of the upcoming guest posts and genres, in this post.