It’s been a while since I last posted, and much has happened in that time. I’m currently writing my thesis for my MA in Literature and Creative Writing. It’s a collection of short stories that will be accompanied by a critical essay, and in this essay I have to explore why I write what I write. The questions I’m thinking about now, and I’d love to hear people’s answers to, are why do we write horror? Why not tell the same story in another genre? Or can horror stories be told in any other genre? I’d love to hear your thoughts…
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Here are some prompts to get that creative blood pumping through your writing veins:
- Pick your least favorite book from your collection, use the first line of this book to start your own story in a the horror genre.
- What color is the room you are sitting painted? What color could it be underneath that first layer and what could be hidden under all that paint?
- Think of someone who has the same first name as you. It can be your friend, neighbor, colleague or even a celebrity, as long as you know a little something about them. Write a story in which that person is in the top wanted list for committing a crime.
- Where did that pen that you lost go?
- Parting is such sweet sorrow. Or is it? When would you be happy to see someone leave and how far would you go to make it happen?
Go on, have fun with these! Let your imagination run wild (and don’t forget to let it tilt towards the dark side…).
Stephen King is synonymous with horror. There are few authors who can compare when it comes to his skill, number of books written and number of books sold. So why do I love Stephen King? Here are five reasons:
(1) He spooked an entire generation
When King write ‘IT’, I wonder if he knew that he would kill a whole generation’s love of clowns. I know few people who don’t have that infamous creature’s image come to mind when they think of clowns, and even less who can suppress a shiver when you talk about that film. The new generation feels little for IT, but for those of us who watched it when we were young, we’ll never be the same…
Carrie White embodies the feelings of all teenagers. She was a victim, an outcast and a character who we couldn’t help but identify with. Having to face the overbearing parent, the unsympathetic school teachers and the vicious class mates every day are something that we have all gone through. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to have had her powers at that age? To have been able to have inflicted revenge on those horrendous creatures that are known as teenagers? As much as we tell ourselves that we would have had more control over her powers than she did, we know deep inside that ultimately anyone in that situation would go down in flames.
The power of Carrie is in that while King makes us sympathize with her, he also makes us realize that we would have jumped on that tampon throwing, pig blood dousing bandwagon rather than defend her. We loved Carrie because we hated her.
(2) The Moving Finger
I first read ‘The Moving Finger’ when I was about twelve and it has been the only story I have read that I was too scared to finish. Finally, after 14 years I’m admitting that that short story scared me. Yet I went back for more and finished it. So how did that gem manage to freak me out? Because the characters and setting were so commonplace and the finger was so bizarre. Yet possible!
I still pick up the story once in a while and read it, hoping to find a glimpse of that horror from years ago, but I never find do it. I chuckle when i think that it could have scared me, because really, it shouldn’t have. No story has scared me since, yet I find myself hoping that every new book I read will have something of that essence, of that primal inexplicable fear, that special something that makes me glad I have a hair trap in my sink. But I’ve never found it, and King will forever be the first (and only) author who scared me.
(3) Everyday objects
Chattery teeth, a toy monkey, cars, fridges and don’t forget the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder. Each of these objects became something sinister, something other than what they were, and while it seems pretty lame in hindsight, when you’re reading them they draw you in. Hi subtle yet powerful characters are confronted with the bizarre, and I find myself thinking what I would do in that situation. The odds are I’d end up as the characters did…
(4) The Jaunt
One of the few stories that I’ve read and could actually hear a characters voice ringing in my head long after I put it down. The Jaunt is a little long winded but worth it. The sheer horror smacks you in the face after listening to the father tell his calming tale before the jaunt. You almost find yourself expecting to blink and wake up on Mars, only hear the commotion and see the… well… you’ll have to read it for yourself. After all, it’s longer than you think… right?
(5) He made me cry
While it wasn’t the gut wrenching full waterworks, a tear or two did fall at the end of the book Cujo. If you’ve seen the film, read the book instead. While I the horror genre doesn’t have a lot of happy endings, it doesn’t have a lot of tear jerkers either. Cujo is about more than just a dog, and when you finish that last page you can’t help but feel sad.
If you’re a King fan, you’ll have noticed that these references all come from early on in his career. I love King’s writing and continue to be a faithful reader, but my dedication to him has wavered somewhat over the years (round about the time The Dark Tower series came out). In my opinion, his best work came in the form of his early short stories, where his work was still filled with raw emotion and wrote for the effect – for the horror – no matter what people had to say.
If you want to write poetry, you need to read it. The good and the bad!
When reading poetry your mind instinctively judges the poems. This doesn’t mean that it is or isn’t worth reading for everyone, but for you it’s important to listen to your instincts. By reading a variety of poetry you will be able to see what works for you, but the key is to figure out why you think it’s a good poem.
You don’t need to do a line by line analysis to work out why you like a poem. Here are some of the aspects of a poem to look at when reading, and some questions to ask yourself:
A theme is underlying idea in the poem, it is the main message that the poet is trying to get across. Ask yourself what the meaning of the poem is as a whole, and then look at each stanza and see if they say similar things or something else entirely. Why does or doesn’t this theme appeal to you?
What emotions do you feel when reading this poem? Does it make you smile, or make you sad or are you left feeling indifferent? It doesn’t matter what you feel, only that it makes you feel something at all. A poem that leaves you feeling not much of anything hasn’t appealed to you, and you should ask yourself why this is.
Who is the speaker in the poem? Who is talking? Is it the poet or is it a character they have created? Is there more than one person speaking? As in a narrative, the author chooses a point of view to tell the story from. Ask yourself if the message in the poem would be different if told from another point of view, and if the poem would be better or worse for you if another character narrated it.
Rhythm and flow:
How does the poem sound if you read it aloud? Do the words flow together like a gentle tide lapping at the shore, or are they forceful and jagged like waves crashing against a cliff? Rhyme, punctuation and spacing can add to flow of a poem, but the individual word choice is the biggest factor. Why did the poet choose those specific words? Would you have chosen other words with the same meaning but a different sound?
What images are created by the poet? Are they linked to the feel and theme of the poem, or do they seem to contradict them? Poets choose their imagery as they do their words: with a specific intention. Do you add imagery into your poem because it ‘looks’ nice, or do use it to enhance to change the meaning of the words?
How could you improve the poem?
Take a few moments to pinpoint the ‘flaws’ in the poem. How would you improve on them and why? Are they flaws for the poem itself, or just for you?
By looking at these aspects of a poem you will discover what you like in poetry. If it works for you when reading the poem, it should work for you when writing it. Pay attention to the finer details of the work, and see if you can achieve the same effect in your own work. If you start reading a poem and it turns out that you don’t like it, then finish reading and ask yourself why. Knowing why the good is good should include knowing why the bad is bad.
Understanding what makes a good poem will help you to write one, but don’t only rely on what others tell you, let yourself discover it on your own.
Think of writing horror as being a magician. You don’t want to reveal all your tricks at the start of the show and then have the crowd walk out halfway through. You also don’t want the opposite to happen – bore the reader while you delay your climax so that they drop the book before the action starts.
Timing and pacing are different. Pacing involves varying the tempo and setting your reader on a ride much like a roller-coaster, with ups and downs, twists and turns. You can use each little event to create a knock-on effect where the tension multiplies and grows until your reader is sitting on the edge of their seat with anticipation of what’s to come.
You need to start off with simple tricks that grow in complexity until your climax. Think of each scene in your short story or chapter in your novel as a different trick in a magic show which add up to creat the whole performance. Imagine yourself on stage and how the audience responds to your actions. Do you need half-naked girls and giant bursts of flame to make the show look good, or will the audience be amazed by the act without the setup?
Keep impressing the reader with your illusions and sleight of hand. Make each trick more difficult than the next until you reach the show stopping climax. But remember to save one or two tricks for the dénouement. Dont let your story fizzle out after the bang, throw in a twist that will leave your reader questioning what they see around them and sleeping with the light on.
Timing is knowing when to have the boogeyman jump out of the closet. You use pacing to build suspense but having your crazed cannibals eat the brave explorers too soon will negate the tension that you’ve worked so hard building. Spending too much time setting up a scene can leave your readers time to predict what will happen or to lose interest in the scene. Just how long can you have the crazed serial killer stalking the protagonist from room to room in the abandoned hotel before it loses its impact?
The question of timing comes down to skill. As a writer, you will have to assess how much (or little) you need to set up your scene before the climax. This comes with practice and requires a certain skill – much like a magician who plans her act before the performance. Don’t be afraid to use misdirection and illusions, all great tricks use these, there is no real magic behind it.
So go on, give your work some thought and put on a show that entices, amazes and terrifies your reader!
Having a hard time getting your story to the level that you want it to be at? Struggling to sell it or to get positive feedback? As writers, we often feel too strongly about some things and not strongly enough about others, so a fair amount of errors can be grouped under ‘over doing it’ or ‘ under doing it’.
Here are some of the common mistakes that writers make:
Over doing it:
Drama, drama, drama:
One of the keys to good fiction is keeping your characters believable. Having your characters react with a violent whirlwind of emotions to every event in your plot will be overkill. Frantic panic over missing a bus, violent outrage over being short-changed or a suicidal rant over spilt milk may have their place in some stories, but not in most. Having your characters react as normal people do will be enough for your readers.
In the beginning…
Going into long drawn-out descriptions of place and time can be difficult not to do, especially when your story is set in the past or the future. A story set in the year 2245 doesn’t need a summary of the world’s political history or your character’s ancestry. The same goes for one set in 1036 BC. A few simple bits of information, a date and some differing aspects mentioned are enough to get the reader’s mind going. Think about it, what type of world comes to mind when imagine the year 13 BC?
If you read through your work, especially if it is a longer piece, you may find that you have repeated yourself. A character’s wants, needs and motivations do not need to be retold every time they come into play. The time and setting do not need to be described and explained over again. Think of a story that you’ve read, how much of what you imagine is told to you? One or two descriptions may work fine, unless something changes in them.
We all love a memorable character now and then, one who is unique and flamboyant; who goes against the norm, but not all your characters can be this way. A reader often enjoys a story because they relate to the characters, and they relate to the characters because they find similarities between themselves and the character. Let’s face it, most of us are pretty ordinary, so when we read about a multi-billionaire losing his or her fortune, are we as sympathetic towards them as we would be towards a hardworking, average person like ourselves losing every cent?
While obscure details can sometimes be useful for adding depth to your descriptions, if they are irrelevant they will do more harm than good. Describing a character’s socks can be informative if it relates to the story (especially if the character is describing their own socks – it says a lot), describing them for the sake of filling up the pages wastes time, space and can bore, if not confuse, your reader.
We all fall into this trap every now and then, and perhaps we can be forgiven for doing so once or twice. More than that becomes embarrassing. The golden sunset, the dead of night, the racing heartbeat, all of these sound familiar for a very good reason: they’ve not only been used before, but they’ve been used too often! Make friends with your thesaurus, it’s more useful than you’d think.
Under doing it:
You won’t have much of a story if nothing happens. Starting off the action is as important as keeping it going, so make sure to pace your story well and to keep your characters on their toes. Also remember that things should happen for a reason, your character shouldn’t just up and join the circus without purpose or motivation.
Forgetting about your other characters
While a plot tends to centre on the protagonist, don’t neglect your other characters in terms of growth and change. New writers tend to focus too much on the protagonist and how they are affected by events, but how do these events affect your antagonist and secondary characters? How do changes in your protagonist influence the other characters and vice versa?
Lights, camera, action!
In an effort to tell the story as well as possible, we can lapse into a factual, lecturing tone where we describe events instead of writing them. Remember to set the scene, the mood, the emotions that are involved in your incidents so that they seem more real and less like a chapter from a textbook. It might help to think of your scene as part of a film: what you would blend into a film scene can be added into your written scene.
Too set in your ways?
It’s not often in life that people experience something and come through unscathed. Be it based on love, horror, drama, fear or action, any major incident will shape and change part of us. We grow and learn every step if the way, and so too should your characters. The ebb and flow of your plot should shape your characters like sand on a beach, gently or violently, but always constantly.
What is the point of your story? What is the meaning or message behind it? Are you telling a story for the sake of telling it, or is there something in it that the reader will take away with them once they have read your work? If there is, and there probably should be, then make sure this comes out subtly in your work.
Not enough planning
Before you sit down and start to write your story, do some planning. Work out the smaller details such as character motivations, plot structure and even do a little technical research before you begin. You may have the beginning and the end in mind, but what happens in between? Having a map makes a journey easier to complete, and every story you write is a journey of its own.
What makes one story give it’s readers a cold chill or makes them leave the light on while another story makes them yawn?
It is important to remember that if your character’s fear is not believable then your reader will not be scared. Your reader experiences the story through your characters, they see what your characters see, taste what your characters taste and fear what your characters fear. If your reader is not convinced that your character is honestly scared, then they won’t be scared either.
Make it believable.
It is hard to instill fear in your reader if they do not believe that whatever your character fears is possible. Almost anything is possible, so if your characters are being chased by rabid, mutated bunnies then that’s fine, as long as you tell the story and the events leading up to it in a believable way. Readers aren’t stupid, and they don’t like to be cheated. It’s worth your while to do research and work on the finer details of how the situation came to be instead of hoping that their imagination will fill in the gaps.
Make Your Characters Act of their own accord.
What your character does when in the grip of fear can either make or break your story. Your characters actions should be believable in that their traits lead them to make that decision, or that they had no other choice but to choose that course of action. Don’t make the terrified cheerleader run straight past the exit and into the basement of the school, she may be a cheerleader but even they can see an escape route.
Leave a Little Mystery…
Who doesn’t like a good episode of CSI or Law and Order every now and then? We all do, because they give us a complicated story that, 95% of the time, is dissected down to the smallest detail and summed up in a neat conclusion. That’s a mistake when you’re trying to get under someone’s skin. Don’t explain away every detail to your reader. Often, when real terror strikes, we don’t know the why’s and how’s, and that is what makes it all a little more horrific.
Give your story to someone you know but who doesn’t know the plot. Ask them to read it and be there to watch their facial expressions. You’ll know by the look in their eyes and they way the hold the pages if you’ve hit that sensitive nerve!
Writing a horror story that is based on a ‘monster’ can be difficult. Gone are the days where readers are shocked by an amorphous blob, a resurrected dinosaur or a giant gorilla. Today’s readers’ need something more, they need a fine balance between something that is both ‘real’ enough to be possible and strange enough to be scary.
This is where the field of cryptids can work to your advantage. Cryptids are animals whose existence has not been confirmed by science. Bigfoot, Nessie and The Yeti, amongst others, fall into this category. Most people are inclined to write these off as tall tales, but a grain of truth must exist somewhere amongst the decades of reported sightings.
The key to writing these types of stories is to remind your readers about this. We’re not talking about a once off sighting, these cryptids have been seen multiple times by a wide variety of people. Don’t let your reader forget this!
How do you take a ‘monster’ that’s been the brunt of many jokes and turn them into something? You concentrate less on the monster and more on how you tell your story.
There’s no need to tell your reader from the start that this monster is what it is. As soon as you say Big Foot, your reader’s mind is filled with connotations that could lead that stop reading or trudge along through your story, not expecting much to come of it. So be subtle and focus on the character and setting before you start labeling your monsters.
Be cautious about what characters you choose for your plot. For example, if you’re writing about Nessie, try not to make your character a die-hard skeptic who learns the hard way or a fearless believer out to prove Nessie’s existence to the world. We all known to what end those stereotypes come. Unless you’ve got a brilliant twist up your sleeve, avoid those two stereotypes. Spend a little time considering who would be the right person for your plot, it will work to your advantage.
This will be one of your most important tools in these types of story. You can use atmosphere to increase tension and anticipation, to set the scene and reel your readers in before you unleash your pet in it’s glory.
I’ve mentioned the most common cryptids, but do a search or two on the Internet and you’ll find that a lot of countries have their own mysterious creatures. Many of them are lot more strange and creepy than the well known ones.
Cryptids are an elusive group, often reported but these reports are seldom accompanied by conclusive evidence. It’s the same situation about horror stories about them, many stories have been written about them, be we struggle to find ones that can prove how terrifying these creatures can be.