Writer Wednesday: Tricks & Treats for Writing Horror
Happy Wednesday Writers and welcome to Halloween Week! If you’ve been following along our co-written horror story shenanigans on Fridays, you know we love a good spooky tale here at Sword & Silk. Horror is one of my favorite literary genres, with a rich history of oral tradition. From our earliest traditions of storytelling, humans have embraced horror, through ghost stories, to myths that featured fearsome creatures and horrible fates, to the cautionary bedtime stories we told our children to warn them against the unseen things that lurked in the dark. Today’s horror story runs a range from visceral body horror to post gothic chills. In many ways, the world of horror, despite the inherent darkness of the genre, provides as much escape from reality as any other genres, while also engaging the senses.
So You Want to Write Horror
While film and television have the added medium of visual storytelling for creating horror media, writing horror can be a challenging feat. Today on the blog we are discussing a few tips and tops, or tricks and treats as this is the Halloween edition, for enriching your horror writing experience.
Feel Your Fears
As a species we share common emotions, and fear is one of our basic driving forces. Fears are so basic and a part of our makeup that there are common fears we share among us. Arachnophobia, for example, the fear of spiders, is a wide spread one. Despite the arachnid’s contribution to pest control and being a viable part of the ecosystem, their eight legged appearance triggers that sense of unnaturalness that many leggy insects too. It is the same creepy crawly sensation that triggers when we see centipedes, or any creature that doesn’t fit the parameters of a warm blooded, two- four legged animal. We are struck with a sense of otherness. A sense of wrongness. This drives many of our fears, such as the fear of the rotting corpse, of blood outside of the body. Tied deeply into our fear of the unnatural is the fear of the unknown. Death is intersectional here, which is why so many of our fictional monsters take forms that subvert death or are created from the advent of death.
This ties into a lesson from genre master Stephen King, who says there are three base types of horror that creators draw from.
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
No Guts, No Glory
Body horror aside, an important factor in all writing is engaging your readers five senses. In horror, even writing in third person, you want to pull your reader into the text with emotions and sensations on a visceral level. The sharp, almost sweet smell of rot, the sticky viscous texture of spilt blood, the fine hairs rising on the back of your neck as you walk into a long abandoned house, unable to shake the feeling of being watched.
While horror often relies on reader imagination, sprinkling hints of the actual entity, person, or thing at the center of the madness, the devil is truly in the details. Think of being buried alive. You would describe the absence of sight, the terror of opening the eyes wide into unrelenting darkness. You would talk about the cloying press of an enclosed space, the grit and dirt wedging beneath your fingernails as you claw at the unforgiving earth above you, pressing down. You would describe the sleepiness, the tight pinch as your air slowly runs out. The sense that no matter what you do, there is no escape...
Speaking of, one of the key roots of Horror is the loss of control. The idea that whatever is happening is out of your hands, that no matter what you do, there is no escape and there is nothing you could do to prevent it from happening. In horror terms, we often call this factor the ‘Creeping Dread’. One of the great tricks of horror is playing the inevitability of the Creeping Dread against human hope. You want the reader to root your character, no matter how hopeless or dire the situation. You might even let a couple characters live, though maybe not the ones who appeared like they would. But hope is important. Hope vs Loss of Control is the tried and true formula for many survival horror stories, and plays a factor in other horror as well. Examples of this are the ‘survive til dawn’ trope in many ghost and monster films or the ‘make it out of the house’ trope.
Study the Tropes of the Genre
Different flavors of horror demand different tactics of storytelling. This doesn’t mean you can’t break out of the tropes of the genre, I would rather encourage you to do so, but it is important to know those tropes in order to write outside the lines. You can’t subvert a trope if you don’t know it exists! For further tips & tops, check out the links and resources posted below and stay tuned for the conclusion of The Pumpkin Spice Girl Murders this Friday!
Resources & Further Reading