Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Devil is in the Details

Horror. When it comes to movies or books, we want something that makes us reluctant to turn out the lights. Unfortunately, all too often, horror comes off campy. It’s one of the hardest genres to write. Don’t just take my word for it. Read Stephen King’s opinion on writing horror in his book, On Writing.

Every horror writer has their methods and I have my own. Pull up a seat and I’ll tell you. When I come up with a good story idea I look for ways to make it original. Take Don't Fear the Reaper. A girl who commits suicide and finds herself staring into the eyes of a reaper sounds decent enough. But how to step it up? How about if she commits suicide by slitting her wrists? On page one? Or, what if her ghost is in the morgue, alone, pulling back the sheet covering her own body? I take an idea and I look for ways to make the story bigger.

But originality is just the beginning. What other tricks do I use? Empathy. Because we can’t feel frightened for characters we’re not emotionally invested in. Opening scenes where a girl trips over a tree root while running from something unseen in the woods? Yawn, right? Get the reader to know her, connect with her or sympathize with her in some way and there’s a better chance readers will stick with the story. Well, I’d argue that she’d be better off in a dark basement or hallway of an old insane asylum, than tripping over her feet in the woods, but that’s probably just me.

Know your audience. What scares you? This is the important part. It’s also the most fun. I ask people this all the time. The answers vary, but it’s always good to listen. I never know where my next good idea for a scene will come from.

Description. Telling someone that my character is alone in the morgue with a dead body is one thing. Describing how the corpse’s blood has settled along its back and detailing how her once mossy colored eyes have turned a milky, fetid green is better. But, why stop with just sight? I prefer to incorporate at least one more of the five senses. In a morgue, I’m sure a body would have a slight rank undercurrent to it despite being kept in a refrigerated cooler. The skin might still feel pliable to my main character’s touch.

Originality, Empathy, Characters, and vivid description born from the darkest parts of my imagination. Good. Now we’re getting somewhere! Imagination plays a big role, clearly. But so does reality. Paranormal fiction has to feel real, feel grounded. I’ve never been dead, so I can’t for certain say what it’s like, but I can imagine it – at least, my version of what it might be like. The hard part here is to reveal just enough detail and explanation that the reader suspends disbelief.  I want them to believe in ghosts and a whole world they can’t see with mortal eyes.

My childhood fear was always the Thing Under the Bed. As a child, I always checked under the bed before turning out the light. I used a broom handle to raise the dust ruffle and peek underneath. I grew up fearing the things I couldn’t see more than what I could see.  I suspect I’m not alone in that.  From my own experience, I believe the reader’s imagination is something to build on. Give just enough details that their own powerful imagination fills in the blanks.

Readers may not really believe that there’s something waiting in a darkened room or under a bed, but a horror writer’s job is to make them doubt that when it’s time to put the book down and turn off the lights. Can you make it across the room to your bed? If you hurry back to the light switch, will your hand brush against something…unnatural? Are you sure that the sounds you hear in the house are the floorboards settling, or your cat? Or maybe I can make you consider, however briefly that demons really could be right there in the room, mere inches away from you, whispering dark secrets about death? If a writer can manage to stay under your skin (all puns intended) after you’ve set the book down, they’ve done one hell of a job.

Oh, I almost forgot a couple words of advice about what scares you. Reaching around the wall to turn on the light? Bending down to look under the bed, even with the lights on? 

Bad idea. 
Sweet dreams, Dearest Reader.


  1. You are so on the money with empathy! I've picked up stories (or watched movies) where I didn't give a hoot if a character was being slashed to bits, because there was zero emotional investment. But then I read other stories where a character's dog is hit by a car, and if the empathy is there, I'll be crying right along with the character. I need to (figuratively) feel their pain and horror to truly be scared by a story.

  2. I agree that it would be hard to create true horror in the minds of the reader and I think that the sensory details and specific descriptive details would play an important part!

  3. It's so true that the emotional impact of an event isn't going to be as powerful if you don't care about the character. The inability to make me feel invested in a character is the number one thing that will make me put down a book or stop watching a TV show/movie.

  4. Wow, this post is jam-packed with great advice! And I thought the being afraid of the Thing Underneath the Bed was a cliche--but I guess not!

  5. In my opinion, every reader is not equally affected by the secene you are depicting. The state of mind of the reader, and the particular environment in which he or she is reading also matters. "The Day After Tomorrow" is certainly not a horror movie, but I remember very well, the first time I watched it, I felt the chill sweeping over my whole body - and a sensation of severe cold, even though the temperature was not low.At that time I was alone at home and the time, I think, was midnight.

    Am I right?