Category Archive: Writing Horror
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Robin told me that in about two weeks stores will shift from back-to-school specials to Halloween masks and décor, which I think is kind of wacky considering summer just started up here in Toronto. But fall is coming and some writers are shifting into Halloween mode too, especially if they are hoping to release a novella or short story with a creepy crawly theme by October. Last year I was one of those people writing a short scary story at the end of summer to take part in such a collection: The Pen and Muse Haunted House Showcase. You can read my story here.
Since I love horror stories, I’ve written a few blog posts on the subject to will hopefully help you polish that scary project.
4 Emotive Tools of Horror: Horror is all about emotional impact! Keep it high by using these four tools to toggle up the fear factor from the creepy beginning right through to the terrifying finale.
One Simple Rule of Writing Horror: Keep it simple. Plus three ways to apply this directive to your horror story.
How Writing Horror is like Writing Comedy: These two genres are more alike than people think. Here are four basic elements of writing both scary and funny stories.
And if you want to join others to discuss horror stories, check out The Midnight Society. Every month they read a YA horror novel and discuss online. Plus they have some posts on writing horror here.
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I have begun outlining a horror story, something that has turned out to be so much fun that I wonder why it took me so long to seize this genre and make it my own. But better late than never! Last week I blogged about the one simple rule of writing horror. This week I’m going to talk about the four emotive tools used in horror stories.
I came across these four things while reading WRITING THE HORROR MOVIE by Marc Blake and Sara Bailey. This is a good little writing craft book that breaks down the basics of writing horror act-by-act. If you’re well-versed in the genre, it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but I find that refreshing my knowledge re structure and story tropes helps me write better. After all, it’s hard to keep everything one needs to remember about writing front-and-centre in the old cerebral cortex. I read and re-read books about craft because inevitably they remind me about some step/trick/tool I’ve neglected to put to good use. And voila! My story improves.
This is what happened when I came across these four tools of horror. My first thought was, “Yes, of course horror needs these things,” and my second was, “Oh no, I’m not using these well.” So consider this blog post your truncated reminder of the 4 Emotive Tools you need to employ while writing horror…
This sets the scene for any scary story. Nothing bad has happened to the hero yet, but the audience should get the feeling that something bad might happen. Essentially, this is atmosphere. You’re getting the reader in the mood! But why use this tool? Why can’t you use a light-hearted romantic tone then BAM! Drop a murder in the scene! Wouldn’t that be shocking and scary? Maybe, but probably not. More likely the murder would seem out-of-place or fake, like it’s a joke, and instead of scaring the reader, the reaction would be, “Huh?” Unease primes an audience to be scared, much like the warm-up act at a comedy show gets the audience ready to laugh for the headliner.
This is a step up from unease because it is connected to an action. Dread is when something happens that in itself isn’t scary yet, but could be. For example, a phone call in the middle of the night, or a car breaking down on the side of the road, or an ambulance heading in the direction of the hero’s house. To feel dread, the audience must connect to the characters and worry about what will happen to them. If not, the audience won’t be scared. Simple motto: no scares without cares!
This is the bad thing happening! Terror is the scream! It’s the payoff of all that tense unease and rising dread. Terror doesn’t usually show up until Act II. If it’s used in Act I, it’s used sparingly. But in Act III, the fever pitch of hell breaking loose, do all you can to sustain it!
This arises from contemplation. Whereas terror is in the now, horror looks back at what happened. It is what we remember when we leave the movie theatre or finish the book. Horror is the takeaway. This is the part of the scary story that punches us in the gut and sticks with us, a nightmare we can’t forget. If you want your horror story to resonate, make sure you have this moment.
With those tools in hand, I’m off to revise my outline!
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I love scary stories! As a kid, I devoured every R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan on my small town library’s shelves. When the Scholastic Book Fair came to my school, I ordered more spine-tingling novels. I would read them under my covers with a flashlight, not for atmosphere but because I was supposed to be asleep and I’d be in trouble if my parents caught me reading past my bedtime. I would even stay up late writing scary stories and terrifying myself so much I couldn’t shut my eyes, though I knew in the end my protagonist would survive.
When I grew up I worked in kids television and wrote mainly action comedies. Nothing in the horror genre… until now. I didn’t set out to write a horror. I had this germ of an idea and just started developing it, spinning yarns that were creepy but nothing close to pants-wetting. I thought of the story more as a mystery, maybe a thriller, but horror… could I write that? It had been so long since I’d even tried. But the idea I was developing wasn’t clicking as a mystery, so I decided to see if it came together better as a scary movie.
Movie? Why that? Why not book? I’m not ruling out that this story may become a book, but I find when it comes to horror, thinking visually helps. After all, fear is what we can’t see (but suspect is there) and what we can see (and wish we couldn’t).
But there’s a second reason to approach this as a film – it forces me to simplify things. My storylines tend to be complicated, full of big turning points, life-changing character revelations and interwoven subplots. But that doesn’t work when writing horror. I needed to follow the base rule of scary movies:
Keep it simple.
And here are 3 ways I applied that directive to my budding horror tale…
Smaller Character Goals. Because I like proactive characters, I tend to give my heroines plans to do stuff. Big goals! Big dreams! But I found that when the Monster strikes and the bodies start dropping, those goals are quickly forgotten and replaced by one desire, “Don’t die!” This is why most horror movies start with the characters just wanting to have fun, or get settled into a new house, or go on a relaxing holiday. Simple, everyday plans because soon the only goal will be staying alive.
Uncomplicated Plot. In the same way that comedy needs time for jokes, horror needs time for screams. If you bog down the script with multiple subplots or twists or revelations, there will be too much story to tell and not enough time left over for scaring the crap out of your audience.
One-Step Character Change. Quest or a coming-of-age stories lead the heroine along various steps that slowly change her into the person she needs to become. But in horror the heroine changes for one reason – she gathered the strength to fight off the monster. Like Sydney in SCREAM: (minor spoiler alert) she wasn’t over her mom’s death and hadn’t come to terms with her mom’s reputation as the town tramp, but there are no heartfelt scenes where she talks to a friend/therapist/teacher, goes through the stages of grief and slowly comes to accept what happened. Nope, she just kills the monster. Now she’s strong and ready to move on.
Though “Keep It Simple” is the base rule of writing horror, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Far from it. I need to learn everything I can about this excellent but often abused genre, starting with devouring some scary writing craft books.
Next up from Heather… I’m reading “Writing the Horror Movie” and learning how to use the four basic tools of horror. What are they? I’ll tell you next Monday.
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I love scary stories. I grew up reading R.L Stine and Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan. I experienced the teen slasher flick revival that started with the movie SCREAM. I wanted to write my own scary stories! However, I spent the last decade writing comedic kids television shows. What the heck happened?
Well, frankly, I found out writing comedy requires the same elements as writing horror. Seriously, these seemingly opposing genres are really two sides of the same coin. Here’s why…
4 Basic Elements of Comedy and Horror
- Relatability. In order for your audience to laugh or scream, they need to relate. We’ve all seen jokes fall flat because the audience doesn’t “get it.” Take the TV show PORTLANDIA, for example. I live in an urban area full of hipsters, so when I watch the scene of the couple in the restaurant asking way too many questions about the organic chicken they’re about to eat, I laugh because I know those people. My parents, on the other hand, live in a small town and don’t know anyone like that, so they don’t get the joke. Same with fear. SCREAM terrified me because I know what it’s like to be home alone in an isolated house in the country. I can relate. Many people do. The handy thing about writing horror is that there are so many common human fears (isolation, darkness, claustrophobia, drowning, etc) to draw on. Less universal fears such as snakes, spiders or ghosts usually need to be paired with common fears to make the situation more relatable. That’s why ghost stories often take place in an isolated house at nighttime.
- Anticipation. Now that you have a situation that your audience can relate to, which will make them laugh or scream, build up the anticipation. An expert stand up comic will string you along with little laughs that build to the punch line. And a good horror story gives you little thrills and chills that lead to a big scare. It can’t be all punch lines or screams all the time. That desensitizes the audience. Make them wait for it.
- Danger. In comedy, the danger usually isn’t life-threatening, but the character must still be terrified of whatever it is (poodle, mother-in-law, unemployment, etc). In horror, the danger is literally trying to kill the hero. Now, a lot of writers would call this “stakes”, and that is accurate, but I’m classifying this element as “danger” because it’s important that your character fear it. Because now you can taunt them with that fear! That’s right, both comedy and horror writers constantly force characters into situations that scare them, the only difference is comedy plays it for laughs, and horror plays it for screams.
- Surprise. This seems like an obvious one for horror; surprise is its game. The killer pops up behind the heroine, the body falls out of the closet, the monster leaps out of the shadows, and everyone screams. But comedy taught me that there’s more to surprise than a sudden visual. Surprise comes from the gap between what the audience thinks will happen and what actually happens. Here’s an example from a kids comedy show I worked on called THE LATEST BUZZ: two characters are trying to make a decision, so one pulls a coin out of his pocket and suggests they flip on it. Then he does a backflip. The audience laughed because they expected him to flip the coin, but instead he flipped himself! (Handy to have an actor who’s a gymnast.) For a horror example, take the movie ALIEN. [spoiler alert] After they find the alien dead and Kane recovers from its attack, the crew gets together for a nice, normal dinner. Everything’s fine until Kane convulses and an alien bursts through his chest! Whoa! No one saw that coming! The result: big screams. So always think about what are your audience’s expectations. If they assume one thing, do the opposite, and the surprise will be even bigger and scarier!
See? Writing comedy is a lot like writing horror. And now I’m ready to write a scary script… Bwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!
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Welcome to part two of Releasing Your Inner Poe. If you missed part one you can find it here. With fall rapidly approaching I’m hard at work on a few projects with dark gothic themes, but more on that in a future post. Since I’m struggling with the task of establishing the right balance of elements, the perfect plot, the right characters and some eerie world building, I’m researching, studying and sharing what I’m learning about gothic fiction in these blog posts. You can also find more of my tips on horror fiction plotting here.
Although gothic is a subgenre of horror and the two share many elements, gothic is a poorly understood form. Hopeful these tips will help sort out some of the facts from the misconceptions.
- Gothic often doesn’t follow the standard fiction rules and most lovers of the genre tend to think that’s just fine. Don’t expect a traditional story arc, or even a clearly established hook. The ending might feel unexpected with a resolution that came out of nowhere. These are messy and complicated stories, full of small insignificant clues that the reader was supposed to read over. Good gothic should leave behind some questions, a level of confusion or a feeling that the author tricked the reader. The story should stick in your head and make the reader want to go back and see if they can catch the tricks. That’s part of the genre’s charm.
- There is often a lack of protagonist transformation in gothic. Distressed and bedraggled protagonists sometimes stay distressed and bedraggled right to the bitter end. Or the protagonist might be saved by outside forces or dumb luck, rather than by their own ingenuity.
- The antagonist is often favored over the hero in terms of page count and plot development. Gothic villains are usually the most memorable characters. If you don’t believe me please feel free to name the protagonist in Frankenstein.
See below when you’ve given up.*
- In gothic, the reader should expect unreliable narrators, negative character arcs and/or protagonists that are unlikable, or unrelatable. I’ll be addressing the differences between these types of narrators in my next gothic post.
- Gothic does not require a historical setting. There are many great gothic plots set in a more modern or even futuristic world. Some media examples are the TV show Twin Peaks, or in movies like The Crow and Blade Runner.
- The genre has its own tropes and stereotypes, like the antagonist who develops a sense of self-loathing and/or grows a conscience and regrets their earlier misdeeds. Also the disgruntled servant, the helpless orphan, and the dark brooding love interest are recurring tropes in gothic fiction.
- A love interest is not required. Sure a bit of romance never hurts and lost, damaged, or unrequited love is a favorite theme, but so is injustice or triumphing over inhumanity. Morality, or lack of morality, is often the central emotional theme, but it’s masquerading as a straight forward love plot.
- There are some formulaic aspects in gothic, such as the idea of achieving a balance between good and evil. Gothic likes polarity, but the battle is not necessarily in a physical sense, it can be all internal, or an ideological struggle. It’s a wide open field limited only by a writer’s imagination to restructure and reinterpret the central theme of polarity.
- Spirituality, and supernatural and other worldly elements are not required for great gothic. Science and technology can mimic the same human vs. the other dynamic of a supernatural presence. The classic example is The Matrix, a film positively dripping in gothic flavor.
I read many of the gothic classics as a child and reread them again as an adult. I know for some readers the prose style is difficult to manage, and the early works can be heavy with moral judgement and religious overtones. However, it’s well worth the effort and anyone who wants to craft some gothic fiction should give the classic works a try.
For more posts by Robin click here.
*This really was a trick question, since Frankenstein has no classic protagonist. Did I mention gothic likes to break rules? The story is framed by a narrator and his name is Captain Robert Walton.
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Gothic literature is delicious and deadly and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about it. It’s a literary form most people either love or hate. I fall in the love-it camp and I’m always hunting for great examples. I enjoy the old masters and finding new writers who rework the old tropes in fresh ways. I’m also thrilled when I find gothic examples on the big or small screen.
Gothic literature is a subgenre of horror. It’s categorized by strong setting, heavy use of metaphors, prose leaning toward a literary flavor and a tendency to glamorize dark and foreboding themes of death, madness and evil. It often has a romantic component which favors themes of lost loves, and misguided or perverted attractions.
Gothic is like a fine meal, rich like chocolate and complex like fine wine. It gathers nuance and beauty from the many layers of story detail and not necessarily through plot or character arc. I think it’s one of the hardest forms to write because it’s formulaic and people expect a writer to address the genre tropes. Yet, it’s also subtle and lyrical. If the writer goes too heavy handed the artistry suffers, and if they go too light they don’t invoke any reader response. Poe was a short story master, any writer could learn a lot from reading his work. However, he’s one of many fine gothic writers. For a well constructed list you can check Goodreads, I’ll add a link below. If you want to study gothic you need to understand the key elements.
These four aspects show up in almost every gothic work I can think of. So each one should get your full consideration if you want to craft a great gothic tale.
There must be a foreboding setting:
Many gothic novels take place in a confined area, a small town, a manor house or a graveyard. The world building can be lush and opulent, or war torn and decrepit, whichever suits the story best. However, in both cases the setting needs to make the reader believe that under the surface something is not quite right. Castles dominated the early gothic works, but modern gothic is much more creative with the use of setting. Think dark, foggy, shadowed places, maybe studded with gargoyles.
The protagonist should be in jeopardy:
Gothic favors woman or children in peril. The protagonist is often isolated and cut off from their support system making them insecure and fearful of the unknown. Sometimes the protagonist puts him or herself in jeopardy by acting irresponsibly. In all cases the reader must believe something bad could happen at any moment. The quality of fear and mystery needs to cling to the protagonist till it colors their whole world view.
The story needs a compelling backstory, evil runs deep:
Much of gothic literature plays off superstitions, urban legends, and folk tales. Some authors interweave historical facts into the story to give it a rich almost realistic feeling. There are omens, predictions, or prophecies that feed the current dilemma and the create a feeling of urgency within the protagonist to solve the problem. Especially if they must beat a ticking clock. Giving all the characters tortured pasts, and family histories drenched in foul play will help make for the perfect atmosphere for harboring evil.
The gothic villain is special.
Gothic loves big villains. They can be pure evil, a monster built for killing, or someone fighting his own inner demons. All the trope monsters are welcome in gothic, werewolves, vampires, and more. Or you don’t necessarily need a traditional villain, the story’s fear could be a product of madness, or some other misdirection of the facts. Sometimes the villains are just misunderstood and a few words can prove their innocence. Or the guilty party might be someone unseen until the bitter end. Gothic villains are often tragic, drenched in their own pain, and we can’t help but feel sorry for them and empathize with their plight.
Gothic fiction is a heavy subject, so it’s best done in small batches. Today I just wanted to introduce a few of the basic story elements and give some examples. Follow me over the next few week as I dig into gothic fiction.
Looking for some gothic authors? Here are ten classics tales you can read right now.
Read more posts by Robin here.
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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.
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