Imaginable Horror

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror.
Apocalpyse Now; screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola; based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness

Horror fiction might seem to be everywhere these days, from prime time TV to sparkling vampires. Truth is that horror is probably the oldest form of genre fiction. Some of the earliest English-language fiction has horror elements. Today’s Young Adult sections are full of horror-tinged series (and have been as long as “young adult” has been on the shelf). Horror is for everyone, to some degree.

Think of early short stories, novels, and films. Horror is almost always the first genre storytellers use (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Frankenstein, short 19th century films by Georges Méliès). It hits us at our most primal points, which is why horror so often uses or implies sexuality as well as the horror itself. The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel is hardly a romantic figure but the metaphor of vampiric possession as sexual awakening has caused the character and his ilk to evolve into Byronesque figures. Gary Oldman’s “old” Dracula in the Francis Ford Coppola film is closer to the novel’s description while his “young” Prince Vlad is what audiences responded to and closer to how vampires are portrayed on screen and page today.

Horror binds us together, like the group of kids who have to work together to defeat a boogey man or the humans who work as a team to defeat the invading aliens. We’re all on one side and the horror is on the other.

Passed down for generations, horror stories and urban legends serve as warnings that serve to protect or inform. The story of “Dead Man’s Curve” can remind a teen driver to slow down when you get to that spot the locals call “Devil’s Elbow.” Don’t forget: if you go parking with your sweetheart, you’re likely to get home and find a hook hanging from the car door handle. Listen around a campfire of elementary-aged scouts and you’ll hear tales of mysterious creatures that lurk in the very woods around you.

Background Image: Dirk Witte/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

What is horror?

Horror is written to scare, horrify, or unsettle the reader (see our Writer’s Glossary). There’s no set of rules for antagonists, situations, etc. Horror can be subjective simply because what frightens Reader #1 might not frighten Reader #2. You’re not even limited by your ending; it can be upbeat (they get away!) or downbeat (they all become cyberzombies!).

Your objective as a horror writer should be to get into your reader’s gut as well as her mind. The most successful horror stories literally haunt the reader, sometimes to the point where the reader is torn between walking away to regroup versus finishing a compelling story.

You can say anything with horror. You can speak out about a social issue, give advice, correct a slight, live out a fantasy—all the things you say with any type of fiction writing. You can put any other element with horror—think romance or humor, for example—and it will work. These two examples work particularly well with horror because they are so basic to humanity.

I was taught (in health class of all places) that there are really only three human emotions and that everything else falls under them: love, anger, and fear. Sounds like the building blocks for a horror story, doesn’t it? Don’t feel that your horror story—or the characters in it—is limited to only expressing horror. Horror is the chilled spine around which your story wraps. Your characters can express love, joy, anger, and desire all while experiencing fear, uncertainty, or even madness.

Horror, above all other genres, is about humanity. Horror forces humanity to face its one commonality: mortality. When we write horror, we hold that mirror up to humanity and force it not only to acknowledge but to accept the fact of mortality.

What horror fiction isn’t is a story with horror elements stuck in for fun. Horror readers are a fun and generous lot but they can spot this in a second (as can editors).

Understand the reader

Like all genre fans, horror readers have expectations that should be met. With horror, this is particularly tricky as people—including editors—define horror in myriad ways. Some readers love “splatter” horror with lots of gore and violence whereas other readers despise a horror story that wants to look like a blood-soaked film.

The best rule of thumb is true for horror as much as any other type of fiction: write what you would want to read. If you’re writing to publish, horror journals and anthologies will provide guidelines for you to let you know if your story is right for them.

As is true in all fiction: show; don’t tell. This is especially true in horror. Horror won’t work if you tell the reader he should be scared. Your goal is to weave a tale that gets under his skin and makes it crawl. Bring your reader along for a thrilling ride rather than put on a show for him to watch.

Different things are scary to different people

My six-year old son has innate fear of spiders. He’s not a fan of bugs in general but the very mention of a spider will send him screaming from the room. As a Florida native, I have yet to meet the bug that creeps me out (and am therefore the designated bug killer in the household). So I could read Charlotte’s Web and be fine whereas my son would consider it a horror story.

This isn’t to say we can’t identify with the horror (Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong). You’re not limited to the victim’s point of view when writing horror. Using the horror as a narrator or empathetic element could be chilling for your reader.

One of the guidelines we have in Dead of Winter every year is not to use clichéd monsters as the antagonist in a story. We have seen too many vampires, werewolves, zombies, and people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s not that we don’t like these horror baddies; it’s just that they’re so rarely fresh. We’ve found that ghosts, for example, seem to get writers to be more creative simply because there’s no standard definition of “ghost.” If you want to use these classics, think of new ways to present them. It’s fine if your vampires sparkle in the sunlight. To some people it’s ridiculous but to some it’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to vampiric canon. The Incredible Hulk is a variation on a werewolf. Think outside the Universal Horror films when you’re deciding what these creatures are in the world you’re creating.

Bad choices

Bad choices are essential to move fiction forward, especially in horror. Why else would the teenager, knife clutched in her trembling fist, continue up the stairs toward the boogey man instead of simply running to the neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1? Because her bad choice not only moves the story forward but it also triggers our protective instinct. Then again, jaded readers might think that if you’re making an obvious bad choice you deserve what you get, Character. But what if there is no good choice? Make sure your characters have reasons—or at least excuses—for what they do.

As the creator, you get to choose what’s in the darkness beyond each fork in the road. Maybe your character hears scratching at the window. He can decide to investigate or to hide deeper in the house. If he goes to the window, he could be attacked or distracted. If he hides, he could become trapped.

So long as your characters are active and resourceful, you can keep a reader along for the ride. If your characters are idiots, your readers might stay with them but start rooting for them to meet their ends. If you’ve ever watched a lazily-written horror film with a group of people, you’ll find the tide turning toward the horror picking off the weak rather than rooting for the potential victims to get away.

One way horror writers get off the hook with characters’ choices is that our characters’ decisions don’t necessarily have to be rational or realistic due to the fear clouding their judgment. This might happen in other types of genre fiction (for example, a character making a poor choice due to being blinded by love) but horror readers tend to be forgiving because this fits in with human nature. Making bad choices is part of human nature as well (see any daytime talk show or court show) and when you compound them with being made under the duress of fear, you can get away with a lot.

Don’t forget that your horror—be it a monster or a vague sense of unease—is also a character. It has motivations, limits, choices, and what it does is under your control. Think of what the horror wants, what it will do to get it, and what the stakes are should it fail or succeed.

What to show and not to show

When Bruce the animatronic shark didn’t function properly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg had to come up with a way to have a shark in his shark movie. So the shark was represented by its dorsal fin, by an actress whose character’s demise opens the film (she was pulled back and forth by ropes below the water), and by yellow barrels jetting across the surface of the sea. Spielberg later said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.” In other words, the shark—the horror—became scarier because it existed in each audience member’s imagination rather than being onscreen.

All horror readers expect to be frightened or disturbed. One advantage written horror fiction has over horror films and TV is that we can draw as little or as much of the horror as we like, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Think of how your mental picture of a character changes once a film of the book comes out. We have every physical detail of the character filled in.

There’s a word for horror that shows violent detail: spatter/splatter. If that’s what you want to write there’s no shortage of journals whose editors and readers love it. That said, don’t assume that all readers want blood and guts strewn across the page. There’s more to horror than that. Even within the fanbase, there are degrees and limits as to what people want to experience.

Can you go too far in horror? Ask yourself if anything is “too far” in any kind of fiction. If you fear where your story wants to go, follow it. Don’t worry about being able to shine a bright light into dusty corners. It’s more interesting if you’re on the last hurrah of a weak set of batteries.

So how do I start?

Writers get inspired in a lot of ways, especially horror writers. A horror writer could find inspiration in an antique shop, a bakery, a pet store, an insurance office.

Write what you find frightening. Someone else is also frightened by it. It could be spiders, clowns, or pocket squares. Write it well and when you get uncomfortable, push further into that discomfort. It’s fun to scare yourself and how often do you get the opportunity?

Horror hinges on humanity. The horror can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it should touch something in the soul of the reader. Horror can be as fantastic as your imagination allows so long as it has a root in genuine humanity to anchor it to our world and to your reader.

Horror is about choices, reactions, and fear. Stakes may be high or low. The monsters may be without or within. Horror is the human condition at its most vulnerable. Horror readers accept that vulnerability, going along for a roller coaster of a ride. Part of your job as a horror writer is to make them feel like once the ride is done, there’s something following them home.

Final Poll Results

You Gotta Know Your Audience*

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A while back at the forums, we got into a debate about what matters more: writing skills or storytelling ability. It all started when UVRAY said, “The critics are having an absolute field day with [Dan Brown’s] terrible writing skills” and Bellman replied, “This is why I say story-telling trumps writing. Every time. The majority of people will forgive a whole lot in the writing skills department if they like the story.”

Bellman wasn’t suggesting that writing skills are irrelevant, only that “[p]eople are more interested in a good story than in good writing. Both together is, of course, the best scenario, but if they have to choose between one or the other, they are far more likely to choose the good story + mediocre writing over the good writing + mediocre story.” While we had people come down on both sides of the skills/story debate, the majority seemed to agree that story trumped skill. KasaiYoukai said, “I can forgive mediocre writing for good story telling … I love Harry Potter, but [J.K. Rowling’s] writing isn’t what I would call superior.” Kenwood added, “The story is far more important than the writing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing can’t be terrible, but it can simply be good or decent and the story still be great. Not everyone will agree with that of course, but it’s a ‘truth’ I think too many people ignore.”

Where Kenwood said ‘people,’ I would say ‘writers.’ Why do writers ignore the importance of story? Because writers tend to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective. For many writers, what excites them about writing is choosing the perfect word, constructing a melodious sentence, or coming up with a fresh metaphor. But the vast majority of readers are not writers. If the story moves them—if it makes them cry or laugh or smile in recognition, if it surprises them, or makes them sleep with the lights on, or spurs them to make a change in their life or a difference in the world—they are not going to fret over the author’s unsophisticated sentence structure, her pet phrases, or second-rate grammar skills. When readers discuss a book, they say things like “My favorite part was when so-and-so did such-and-such,” not “I really appreciated the craftsmanship in the fifth sentence on page 272.” To understand if a piece of writing works—and why—one needs to evaluate it as a reader, not as a writer.

Background Image: Emily|ebarney/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

On his blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, “In order to have a book published it doesn’t have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment … that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that’s really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf. Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.” Dan Brown does not possess superior writing skills, but he clearly knows a bit about storytelling. No matter that I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code (after all, I’m a picky writer who can’t stop evaluating writing from a writer’s perspective—see above), millions of people did.

For a work to be great, of course the writer must possess writing skills as well as storytelling ability. But just because you have writing skills doesn’t mean your writing is automatically great. You first have to have something to say. That’s storytelling, and it’s the core of your work, the base that gives your writing skills something to embellish.

If story is the cake, writing skills are the frosting. Of course, cake with frosting is best, but cake without frosting is still good. Frosting without cake, on the other hand, is not. With cake, frosting is the finishing touch that makes the cake something special. Alone, it’s just unrelenting sweetness. We’re all familiar with the crash that inevitably follows a sugar high. Superior writing skills are admirable, but on their own they’re just so much sweetness: lovely sentence, lovely sentence, lovely sentence—and then? Oh, you mean that’s it? Crash. Writing skills need a story to support them, to make all those lovely sentences amount to something.

As Nathan Bransford recently said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But … the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment.” Bransford added that, contrary to popular belief, modern literary novels “have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there’s so much to take away, but [Marilynne] Robinson and [Ian] McEwan and [Junot] Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.”

In our “Dan Brown” discussion, I think we all agreed that writing skills and storytelling ability are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I was struck by the number of people who seemed to hold the belief that such works are more a matter of personal style than conscious effort, and that it would be sacrificing one’s artistic integrity to deliberately adjust the skill/story balance in one’s own work. The perception is that true artists write from some inner impetus (that is perhaps unknown even to the writer) and only seek out readers once the work is complete. Only ‘sell-outs’ consider externalities like audience while they are writing.

But I contend that you should always consider your audience. Thinking about audience for me is not a marketing strategy; rather, it’s a way of keeping my writing moving in a direction that makes sense for the piece, and not losing sight of why I am writing.

I once wrote a short story with an 8-year-old narrator. In the first draft, the story was set in the present, although many of the details were scooped from my own childhood. After I got some feedback on the story, I realized that it was those details that resonated with readers. I decided to revise the story to set it definitively in the 1970s. That decision was influenced by recognizing that even though the narrator was eight, the audience for the story was not so much present-day 8-year-olds (although they might enjoy it), but reminiscing adults who remembered being eight. The original version might have been what was ‘in my head’ at the time of the initial writing but the conscious changes I made to the final version made it a better story.

Audience is the bridge between writing skills and storytelling. Saying “I write for myself” doesn’t excuse you from this. Even private writing has an audience: you. Your journal writing should be different than your fiction. But while your personal journals might be intended for an audience of one, fiction explicitly targets a larger audience. You might not be interested in Dan Brown’s readership, but if you write fiction, the intended audience is more than just yourself. And with each person added to your audience, your personal importance as a reader decreases. Even in an audience of 100—microscopic by Dan Brown standards—you make up only 1% of your readership. Failing to consider the rest of your audience is not artistic, it’s narcissistic. And ultimately, self-sabotaging.

For writers whose work doesn’t enjoy the same level of popularity as Dan Brown’s or J.K. Rowling’s (which is, let’s face it, most of us), it helps immensely to have what Kevin Kelly calls True Fans: people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” But true fans need to be nurtured; you’re not going to build a truefanbase by telling potential readers/fans—as some did during our discussion—that you have no purpose for writing aside from preventing your own crazy, that if your work says anything it’s completely unintentional, and that you don’t care whether readers take anything away from your work. As Sparky99 pointed out, this makes it sound like “the only reason you’re writing is for your own entertainment, your own release, your own therapy”—and, if that’s the case, why should anyone else be interested in reading your work?

Such declarations are generally made in the defense of one’s work as art, the purity of which is not be sullied by outside considerations. But writing that has nothing to say is not art. As Baker said, “I think most art is created as a statement by the artist. The creator of work has something to say and says it through the work. Otherwise, why create?” In an essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell argued that there are four motives for writing (aside from the need to earn a living): sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. All writers have these motives but in different proportions. Valuing writing skills to the neglect of story is too much aesthetic enthusiasm. Writing ‘for me’ without any other consideration is excessive egoism.

One of the things I’ve struggled with as a writer is finishing a novel. Inevitably, I’ve bogged down somewhere between the middle and the end. I have terrible trouble with resolution. Should the main character make this choice or that one? I try choice A. I try choice B. Maybe choice C? It all feels so arbitrary. Shouldn’t one feel more right than the others? Why can’t I decide? My frustration was compounded by the feeling I knew the answer (after all, I’ve finished plenty of other things, just not novels); I just couldn’t articulate it.

My “aha!” moment was realizing my novel-writing stalled when—caught up in the details of word, sentence, and paragraph (too much aesthetic enthusiasm!)—I lost track of the story, the big picture. I didn’t experience the same difficulty when writing in other genres because, in those cases, my purpose for writing and the intended audience were always implicitly clear, if not explicitly stated.

Good writing doesn’t just spontaneously happen. Without consciously thinking about why—and for whom—you are writing, your work will wander aimlessly. You’ll be unsatisfied, because the piece will never feel finished regardless of how long it gets. Thinking about who is going to read your work does not equate to sacrificing your artistic integrity; it’s a way of focusing what you have to say—and it transcends genre. Whatever your subject matter, the principle remains the same: how you approach your work depends on who your real or imagined audience is. Poet Sharon Olds has said: “Questions that interest me include: … For whom are you writing (the dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you at the checkout line in Safeway)?”

For whom are you writing?

With grateful thanks to everyone who participated in the “Dan Brown” thread.

*Credit for the title goes to Elaine Lui.

Final Poll Results