We Want to Make You Scream: Writing Horror by Barbara McDowell

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: annotationseditorial@gmail.com).

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. 

The Exorcist (1973)

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.

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About Nicole Basaraba

Nicole Basaraba is a Canadian writer focusing on topics of travel (Mondays), writing and literature (Wednesdays), lifestyle (Fridays) and her experiences living in the capital city of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
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43 Responses to We Want to Make You Scream: Writing Horror by Barbara McDowell

  1. Ah, it is okay to come a little closer, Nicole. Horror writers are safe. Well… 🙂
    Thanks so much for the invite to share as part of your genre series!

    • bwtaylor75 says:

      Awesome post ladies! I dabble in the world of horror and was thrilled to find a spotlight shining down on the all but forgotten genre. Does it help that February is women in horror month………um, YEAH! Again wonderful post.

      • Appreciate that, Brian! I just pinged over to your blog and saw some great posts I’ll be back to read at length. I adore all things horror as well. 🙂 I see you like Dean Koontz. He seems to put a good bit of fantasy spin into books.

      • Thanks so much for the comment. I was sad to learn from you horror writers that the genre somehow started to slip away. Super neat about Feb being women horror writers month.

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  3. Julie Glover says:

    I’m not usually a horror fan, but it’s in my plan to read from this genre in 2012. I was intrigued with how these tales are woven. Thanks, Barbara.

  4. This is a great post! I’m a horror writer myself, and love to talk about the genre as a whole. I think a lot of people are put off by it, but it’s really about emotion. I actually like to compare it to romance, but instead of it being about love, it’s about fear. Both use suspense and tension to get to the greatest face-off of said emotion. It’s just that one is usually a marriage or sex scene and the other is usually a murder, chase, etc. Anyway, nice post. Hopefully we can bring a few more people over to the dark side. =)

    • Annie, the comparison to romance is perfect. Yes! And sometimes there is or was love there in horror, but it turns into something else that then drives forward to negative action. Both genres are so about the emotional draw and honesty. Just like there is cheesy romance that people are put off by because it reads false, there is cheesy horror. I’m actually a closet romantic. I started as a poet and devoured all things Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare sonnets. Got twisted somewhere so now when I write about relationships, some dark stuff tends to happen. Heh. 🙂

  5. Awesome post Barbara (great hosting Nicole). I am not a horror writer and have always had a healthy respect for the horror writers who can really scare us with words on a page. It’s a true talent and I would think one of the hardest genres to write because the pacing has to be “just” so! I love how you detail the different sub-genre and the basics to writing horror. Gave me a great sense of how to put it together. And the story you mention at the ending…eeekeee…LUV IT! You left me wanting to read MORE!!

    • It is fascinating what lures writers to the genres they thrive in. I’ve never thought about horror as hard to write–rather that it was so natural. You are right about the pacing, Natalie. it is one of those things where as the author, we know the secret and have to decide how to tease and torture you with it. Thanks for the comment and the kudos for horror writers!

  6. I have been in love with horror since i read the Tell-Tale Heart by Poe in grade school. I write some super creepy short fiction. Poe and King are my idols in this department.

    Nicole, thanks so much for having Barbara on your blog today!
    Great post. 🙂

    • Love Poe, Darlene! I remember trying to quote lines from him. The way he sets the mood and tone. For modern writers in the genre, King is who I admire as well for his talent, creativity, craftsmanship and discipline. Thanks for the comment and for adding more creepy stories into the world! 🙂

  7. Em says:

    I have never thought of writing horror, I am scared I would scare myself! Very interesting post and makes me think I should read some Stephen King as I have never read anything of his. I enjoy psychological thrillers, being scared at times can be fun!

    • Definitely give some King a whirl, Em! I heart psychological thrillers too because of being able to sit back and watch how humans tick. For a lean towards psychological, you could try King’s Misery (Annie Wilkes is special) or The Shining (which also digs into haunting) as starts. If you want scary and like vampires, Salem’s Lot is waiting for you. Another great intro would be some of his short story collections like Skeleton Crew, Night Shift or Nightmares and Dreamscapes. There are some great ones in those. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Raymond says:

    Barbara – Excellent post, as a fellow horror writer I do believe you nailed it…especially the “cousin” part LOL. I believe most non-horror readers think “splatterpunk” when they hear “horror,” which is too bad as your point is well made that horror has a great “psychological” quality to it. Again, great job with this and Nicole thank you for getting this series together.

    • Thanks, Raymond! *waving to a fellow horror writer* I’ve written my share of “crazy cousin” characters that I loved, but had no place in the story. So I have a holding folder for them hoping they can appear one day. I agree with you that a lot of people thing gore when they hear horror, which is then a turnoff. I love that there are varying levels that can be read and enjoyed based on one’s mood/taste.

      • When think of horror in terms of books, I always think of dark stories, maybe a haunted mansion comes to mind. But when I think of horror movies, splatterpunk is definitely what springs to mind.

        And I tweeted your blog post on Horror as well Raymond.

  9. Barbara, this post is an excellent education about the horror genre! You described so many aspects that most readers don’t even consider. Since I always picture you boogeying around in your sparkly dancing shoes, I simply can’t imagine you writing scary stuff. But I suspect this means that your horror stories will be more frightening than most because you will gently lead us somewhere we would never expect. I’m already getting nervous! Nicole, this series is a fine idea!

    • Glad I could provide a window into the land of horror, Patricia. I do get a kick out of people not suspecting to read something that is scary or even delving into demented coming from me. I do like the quiet and gentle lead in to stories where a reader will get the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Appreciate the comment.

      • So true. Barbara is so funny and outgoing, you wouldn’t think she would write horror, but like you said Patricia, she would scare us big time with the gently lead-in….

  10. Hunter says:

    Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    Barbara McDowell provides an excellent intro to horror as a genre.

  11. You look so sweet and innocent, Barbara! How can you write horror? Horror terrifies me (I know, it’s supposed to), but I can’t read it or watch horror movies. The scary bits stick with me for a loooooooong time. I think I’m traumatized just from reading this blog. Splatterpunk? Really? I could’ve lived a long peaceful life never knowing about that one. But I still love you!

  12. Amber Keller says:

    Wonderful post! Thank you for bringing horror to light in an organized and well explained way. I am a horror writer as well, and the first thing that intrigued me was when you mentioned subgenres and how it can get lost in translation to categorize horror, as of late. When I began to take my writing seriously, I had the conversation with a fellow author about where exactly my writing fit. They mentioned to me that horror may not be as marketable now as it once was, and that I may want to think about the terms “suspense” or “thriller”, pertaining to the work I was questioning. I hadn’t considered this before. Now that I’ve looked into it a bit more, I have found that it can differ not only between writers, but with agents, and publishers alike. It can be tricky. I was wondering about your thoughts on this. Have you encountered much resistance to the horror genre?

    Also, I love the idea of a month dedicated to women horror writers! Delicious idea!

    • Howdy, Amber! *secret wave to a fellow horror writer* I’m glad you enjoyed the post. To your question on resistance, oh yes I have experienced it. For short stories, I’ve gotten the brush off that I was writing “popular” fiction not worthy of literary critique (seriously, a story is a story is a story) and been told that the market would be secondary and limited (for both short and long fiction). I also see people putting and labeling horror into different boxes because it sounds “better” or is a more appreciated category. I’ve written a few suspense/thriller stories and to me, the focal point and motivation behind them was different. I’ll leave the details to the writer who will cover that genre here. It can be tricky and hard to get people not to stereotype horror as second rate.

      • Its so interesting for me to learn about this issue, about the horror genre getting some flack in the industry and this is exactly why I wanted to run this blog series. I’m already learning about the craft in the genres and also about how they are viewed in the industry. Thanks again to Barbara for the insight.

        Stay tuned for Stacy Green’s post on Wed. April 4th on Suspense vs. Thrillers.

  13. J.H.M. says:

    I’m happy that you made a point here of stating that a great horror story should not have a conventionally pleasant ending by definition. So many people, it seems, miss this basic point: The horror story is an inherently pessimistic art. It is supposed to show you what is wrong with this world—or that one—and to entertain you in the showing. Making the ending positive or neat diffuses the tension, misses the point. So that’s cool.

    I was a little disappointed at the non-mention of either Charles L. Grant—the very man behind the term “quiet horror”—or the Lovecraftian tradition, which (while often padded with rank pastiche) has produced some of the most original and influential writers in the horror field. Yes, this is for people who haven’t approached the genre before, but a brief nod is as good as anything. (Note also that a grain of salt should be taken here in that I am an avowed, raving Ligotti cultist, so no harm, no foul.)

    • *Nod to Mr. Grant* I did consider wandering into some history of the genre, but that in itself could be a separate post. And Lovecraft’s influence? Yep, endless. I love your mention of horror showing “what is wrong with the world.” Appreciate you stopping by and commenting!

  14. I’m sometimes asked for tales I would recommend as an introduction to my field. I came up with this list:

    “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Edgar Allan Poe)
    “Carmilla” (J. Sheridan Le Fanu)
    “The White People” (Arthur Machen)
    “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs)
    “The Willows” (Algernon Blackwood)
    “The Colour out of Space” (H. P. Lovecraft)
    “A Warning to the Curious” (M. R. James)
    “Smoke Ghost” (Fritz Leiber)
    “Running Down” (M. John Harrison)
    “The Hospice” (Robert Aickman)

    • A fantastic list, Ramsey! Thank you for sharing that here. I distinctly remember the “that’s how it is done” feeling I got while reading the twist of the wishes in “The Monkey’s Paw.” I would also highly recommend for people to check out your body of work. 🙂

      • Well, thank you, Barbara! I’d say quite a few of the tales I listed – Machen’s, Blackwood’s, Lovecraft’s and, come to think of it, the Poe – seem to reach for awe or, as Lovecraft used to put it, cosmic terror (though perhaps that wouldn’t apply to the Poe as much).I think that’s the highest form of terror.

  15. Marcia says:

    This is an absolutely excellent post, Barbara! My first inclination is to flatly say NO to horror, but when I think about it, I’ve read and watched plenty of horror in my life…the old horror movies from the 1930s -1950s, love the book, The Exorcist, but had to walk out of the movie and had nightmares for years after. Love Edgar Allan Poe stories and one of my favorite movies was Silence of the Lambs. So, I guess I do like horror but quiet and psychological horror rather than that with gore or supernatural elements.

    • I love your embrace of horror, Marcia! Just say yes. 🙂 I tend to read and watch it all–the splatterpunk for the romping madness (and the sly humor of the movies like in the Scream series), the supernatural for the “ooo” factor from delving into some of the legends and the quiet/psychological stuff to try to creep myself out. The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs are two of my faves both from reading and watching.

    • Forgive me, Marcia, but aren’t quite a few of Poe’s tales supernatural?

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  18. Stacy Green says:

    What a great post! This is a genre I love but don’t read enough of. Ramsey’s list is fantastic. M.R. James was great a horror, and while some of Poe is supernatural, I’ve always likened him to the horror genre as well. Perhaps it’s because his stories scared me, lol. Psychological horror is by far my favorite, and like many of, Silence of the Lambs is at the top of my list for that.

    Thanks!

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