Writing Horror

A recent question on the BL forums got me thinking. How does one write horror?

As the Paranoia RPG so eloquently put it: Fear and Ignorance, Ignorance and Fear.

Shock, horror and fear are three different emotions and are dealt with differently. Shock is the heart-pounding response to a sudden event. Horror is the distaste that arises from something gruesome. Fear is an underlying doubt, a gnawing feeling that heightens suspense.

All three of these can be conveyed in two ways by a writer; through the characters or direct to the reader.

Shock

Shock can be hard to convey directly to a reader. The written word lacks the immediate visual impact of film or sound, so it only really works if the reader has been totally immersed with the story. The words need to be sudden, jarring. If the ‘shocking’ event is overly described, the verbiage of the words lessens the reaction.

In a shower of blood and brains, Damien’s head exploded.

is not as good as

Damien’s head exploded.

Readers can probably (somewhat disturbingly) picture what an exploding head looks like, you don’t need to spell it out for them. Not only the words but the presentation can be toyed with. Just as the characters who are shocked shouldn’t be immediately aware of what’s happening, so too the reader. Allow their imaginations to run riot for a short while before settling their nerves.

Just as important is immediate reaction. The characters need to feel the same shock as the reader. Thundering heartbeats, screams, shouts, bowel-loosening terror! Your characters are the vehicle through which your reader shares the horror with you. If you’ve done your job they care for the characters and when the characters are scared, the reader is also scared on their behalf.

“You’re getting the ice cream,” said Mackenzie.

“Only if you promise to bring a spoon,” joked Damien as he stepped out into the rubble-strewn street.

“Yeah, but -”

Mackenzie’s head exploded.

Damien hurled himself towards the wall of the closest building. Grunting over and over, he curled up where pavement met brick, cradling his rifle across his chest.

Horror

Horror is the loathing and revulsion experienced when something unpleasant happens. All sorts of things can induce horror in the reader; your warped imagination is the only limit! Just as with shock, it’s important that your characters also react with the horror of the reader.

Even if the character doesn’t actually feel shock or horror (a hardened Space Marine for example) it’s important to point out that the horrifying event is having no effect. In this case the reaction is no reaction at all, which in itself says something about the character.

“You’re getting the ice cream,” said Mackenzie.

“Only if you promise to bring a spoon,” joked Damien as he stepped out into the rubble-strewn street.

“Yeah, but -”

Mackenzie’s head exploded.

Damien hurled himself towards the wall of the closest building. Grunting over and over, he curled up where pavement met brick, cradling his rifle across his chest. There were flecks of blood on his shaking hands.

The retort of a rifle shot still echoed along the deserted street.

Panting, Damien shot a glance towards the camouflaged bundle lying in the road. Blood pooled from Mackenzie’s decapitated corpse. The ragged remnants of his face were turned towards Damien, one eye staring at him from a mask of blood. Gritting his teeth, Damien forced back the shout that rose in his throat.

Fear

This is the real goodie. Unlike horror and shock (or panic) fear is not a reaction. It is an anticipation, even expectation, of something bad happening. Fear is founded on tension, the interplay between what might happen and what does happen. Fear is the build-up that makes the shock and the horror more potent. The shock and horror are the release of tension.

Again, the characters’ fear can be transmitted to the reader, but depending on the style of writing and perspective there are other ways to ratchet up the tension. A common trick in films is to have the character(s) being observed by an as-yet unidentified person or thing. It stalks them in full view of the watcher, who wants to warn the characters of the danger. The same can be done in writing. You can make your reader aware of a threat that is unknown to the character. The tension comes about because the reader is unsure whether the character will become aware of the danger before it strikes. Also, you can have one character aware of the danger and other characters not. Don’t underestimate the ‘It’s behind you’ drive.

Entire plots can be driven by fear: A character learns that an assassin is out to hunt him. A plague is sweeping the city, unseen but deadly. There’s nuke in a suitcase somewhere. A piece of shrapnel is close to the character’s heart and could kill him at any moment.  Fear is the Expectation of the Bad Thing Happening.

The interplay between fear, shock and horror are the foundation of ‘Horror’ fiction. The best exponents are able to increase the tension of the reader, heightening their fear, before lowering it again. The tension then rises even higher before subsiding slightly. As a writer you need to toy with expectation, otherwise the situations become predictable and lose their impact. If every fear-inducing scene results in a shock or horror, and the characters deal with it, then the concern for the characters is lessened in subsequent episodes. That’s why shlock-horror slasher movies usually aren’t that scary. They concentrate on shock and horror rather than fear. Body count does not equal fear in itself. When done well the reader almost wants the bad thing to happen just so that it’s out in the open and can be dealt with. Don’t give them that release until it’ll have maximum impact.

 “You’re getting the ice cream,” said Mackenzie.

“Only if you promise to bring a spoon,” joked Damien as he stepped out into the rubble-strewn street.

“Yeah, but -”

Mackenzie’s head exploded.

Damien hurled himself towards the wall of the closest building. Grunting over and over, he curled up where pavement met brick, cradling his rifle across his chest. There were flecks of blood on his shaking hands.

The retort of a rifle shot still echoed along the deserted street.

Panting, Damien shot a glance towards the camouflaged bundle lying in the road. Blood pooled from Mackenzie’s decapitated corpse. The ragged remnants of his face were turned towards Damien, one eye staring at him from a mask of blood. Gritting his teeth, Damien forced back the shout that rose in his throat.

Damien’s eyes darted across the dark empty windows of the buildings, looking for the sniper. He could have been anywhere amongst the tangle of half-ruined apartment blocks. Was he lining up his next shot at that moment? Was Damien’s head now looming large in a magnified scope?

The urge to run gripped Damien, and immediately met an overwhelming desire to stay still. Flight met fight and Damien was caught inbetween, rocking back and forth. He couldn’t think. His eyes kept drawing back to Mackenzie’s headless body. Damien couldn’t even swear, the words balling up in his larynx, choking him.

Another sound snapped him out of his gibbering: the rattle of falling debris. Damien raised his head with tectonic slowness, fearing to hear the retort of a gun at any moment. Snail-like, he inched forwards until he came to the corner of the building. With a gasp, he realised he had been holding his breath and let it out. Every nerve jangled as he poked his head forward. His eyes were scrunched half-closed and he forced himself to open them fully.

He saw more soldiers at the end of the road, turning from the main square. Like Mackenzie, they seemed oblivious to any danger, strolling along with their rifles slung over their shoulders.

Damien wanted to shout out to them. They needed warning. He swallowed hard and licked his lips, imagining the words coming from his mouth. It was no good, he couldn’t say anything. The fear of revealing his position overwhelmed his concern for the other soldiers.

They made their way past the smoking remnants of an armoured car, chatting away. One of them was handing out cigarettes to the others. Somewhere out there, a bullet was being slid into place, a scope adjusted.

Damien wanted to scream. He wanted them to take cover. ‘Get down!’ he begged mentally, but all the while the fear that writhed in his gut robbed him of speech.

He risked another glance. The squad was about a hundred metres away, sauntering along without a care in the world.

Damien sat back slowly, gnawing his lower lip, dreading the sound of another round being fired. He tasted blood and realised he had bitten through his lip. The metallic taste focused him.

Taking three deep breaths, Damien bellowed.

“Sniper!”

The soldiers scattered, diving for cover. Damien collapsed to the pavement, sobbing. His relief was short-lived as realisation dawned.

Somewhere amongst the war-torn remnants of London, hidden in the maze of collapsed buildings and dark alleys, the sniper was still out there.

Published in: on November 27, 2008 at 6:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. […] Further to my own ramblings on writing horror, here’s a link to a great essay on the subject. Thanks to Sholto on the Black Library forums […]

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