Epic Fantasy isn’t my only love in the world of fiction. This post is about another genre that I spend a lot of time and a lot of thought in.
I love the Horror genre. I love to read, or watch, or play stories that are innovative and scary, stories that make me look over my shoulder for hours after I’m finished. During my lifelong love affair with the genre, I’ve picked up a few concepts that should help anyone looking to improve their craft.
Scale is Everything
What’s scarier? A monster ripping through a city? Or a monster locked in a dark room in the basement?
Horror is all about personal connections, and personal threat. As you scale up the threat, you scale down the sense of horror. Sure, it can still be tense, thrilling, and effective. Large-scale terrors can make for great stories (War of the Worlds, Pacific Rim). But they won’t be horrifying.
Subtlety in All Things
This is why a twisted corpse twitching and pulling in a rattling moan is scarier than the same corpse leaping at the screen/character. Leave the audience room to imagine the next moment, and the next. Leave them room to imagine what the monster can and will do. Leave them room to scare themselves.
This goes double when it comes to describing/revealing your monster vs. leaving them mostly hidden in shadow.
Respect Your Audience
It’s not just a Horror story. Don’t let yourself be lazy or generic with those words as comfort. Respect your audience, respect yourself. Build interesting characters who are clever and resourceful and are overwhelmed anyway. Build stories that maybe the characters simply couldn’t have done anything to avoid.
There is more terror in being helpless than in being stupid.
And last but not least…
Find Terror in the Mundane
When I say that, I don’t mean that you should try to make a Horror movie about a killer tire (this is a real thing!). What I mean is, find what is already frightening, and make it horrifying.
Here are two of my favorite mainstays of Horror: A baby monitor, and a mental institution.
Sure, both of these are complete cliches by now. But have you ever thought about why they can continue to be effective in Horror? It’s because, in the case of the monitor, nothing supernatural has to go wrong for something horrifying to happen. And in the case of mental institutions, it’s because horrifying things have already happened in these places. There’s pain, the potential for pain, attached to these things on a fundamental level.
Here’s one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, to demonstrate further. I’ll not say anything else to avoid spoiling, other than that it’s highly disturbing and contains strong language. (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Autopilot)
To Sum Up
Use small scale to keep the audience invested in the immediate threat. Use subtlety to build a palpable atmosphere of dread. Respect your audience to keep them attached to the characters and story. And use Horror elements to elevate already-uncomfortable story elements. Together, this will make for a story to keep the audience up at night.
Thanks for reading! What do you think are some fundamental tips for writing Horror? If people are interested, I have a lot more to say on this subject!