Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
Nightstalkers and Nightmares
I’ve never been a fan of graphic horror. I have vivid memories of burying my face in my boyfriend’s shoulder whenever our friends talked us into watching a horror movie.
However, I love gothic tales, the darker and creepier the better. I will always drop whatever I’m doing to watch black and white episodes of Dark Shadows. And don’t even get me started on my love affair with Lon Chaney Jr. Dog-eared classic horror novels line my shelves and the favorites area of my Kindle.
As a genre, horror enjoys quite a spectrum—from suspenseful intrigue, where a villain is all in your mind, to bloody, nightmare-inducing psychopaths who kill without provocation. While I love the former, I can respect the hardcore gore too. They both make demands of their authors, just different demands. I think every story can benefit from some well placed scare elements. Here are four tips for cranking up the fear on your readers.
Everyone has fears: What we fear is relative to our circumstances. I don’t like wasps. That might have something to do with a rather unpleasant encounter with a Tarantula Hawk, second most painful insect sting in the world. I still have the scar. Find what you fear and use it, or research common fears and use them as a starting point. Remember to keep the fear level geared to your reader. When you write for little children fear might be a broken nightlight, or the sound of your parents arguing after your best friend’s parents just divorced. Fear might mean taking the driver’s test for the fourth time to a struggling teen. For some hardcore fear addicts, it might be a weekend in the woods being chased by a serial killer.
Study the masters: Invoking fear and suspense in readers or film-goers is a skill. Study the best, be it Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe. Even old classic radio shows where actors like Boris Karloff got their start can be helpful. Take critical notes. Look at the structures they use. How they develop characters. Look for secondary story lines. Pay attention to how they drag us in. How they build and release the tension in cycles. Note if they throw in a bit of comic relief. This make the reader lower their guard. Study how they finish off the story. Do they leave you wide-eyed, breathless and shaken? Or with a positive note, victory has trumped evil? Maybe with a cliffhanger, setting them and you up for part two?
Relationships before rippers: Make sure we care about these characters first. The media bombards us with the hardship of strangers, so all stories take on a greater meaning when they happen to someone you like. Even if we start the story expecting the hardships, being able to empathize with the characters gives the pending bad stuff that much sharper an edge. Putting solid effort into building characters and relationships puts the author in a stronger position to carry off a last minute plot twist. This leads to my last point….
Explore the unexpected: Try to keep the reader guessing. It’s always easier for writers to kill off the bad guys, but good characters need setbacks too or the story has no steam to keep us engaged. Watch out for making stale and predictable decisions. Most readers are willing to give a story a few instances when they could see the events coming from a mile away, but a whole book like that is a snoozefest. Some of the best shudders come from the element of surprise, something shocking but that still makes perfect sense in retrospect. When you make fresh plot twists and decisions, readers wonder if their favorites are safe. They will read faster and with more enthusiasm if you keep them guessing, at least I do.
Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.
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