It’s never what you expect. That phrase not only defines most of horror’s plot lines, but it is also a good description of writing horror. There is a bit more to it than simply put everyone’s worst fears in a book. There is an artistry to the madness that draws you in and makes you feel every last scream as if it were your own.
In simple terms, the genre of horror contains supernatural or exaggerated threats. The conflict is everything and must seem impossible to survive. There are a lot of subgenres on how this can be done. You can really combine horror with any other genre. You can have a horrific science-fiction, a terrifying fantasy, and even heart-stopping romances. Wouldn’t you be terrified to learn if your long-time soul mate was cheating on you and all your kids were someone else’s because you were barren? Told in the right way, domestic horrors can be the worst because they are so believable and could happen to anyone at any moment.
The way the story is told matters. A person can either shudder or laugh at the same story told in different ways. The key to making horror stories really scary is by connecting the characters to the readers. You don’t need to spend a lot of time working on the depth of your character, that isn’t what I mean. I mean you need to write out what the character sees, feels, hears, and smells as they nervously walk into an unlit room where glass crunches underfoot and a damp moldy smell makes you think of rotten pumpkins. Showing through internal dialogue is what you want.
In fact, a lot, but not all, of horror main characters are plain Janes. The character could be anyone really, even the reader. These are not stories of heroes and the characters are always unprepared for what is coming. They may be likable but do not have what it takes and only luck will get them through if they do survive. Pummel your nice characters hard. There are still going to be moments where you see a bit of character, but not enough to overwhelm the tension. The action is what is important and how the reader sees it for themselves.
The more personal the horror, the harder it will hit the readers. Horror is a mix of general fears and a surprise visit of your deepest darkest nightmares. Most of people’s nightmares consist of social blunders, embarrassments, betrayal, and the unknown. Think of your own fears, face them, then exaggerate them. There can still be monsters if that’s how you like to write, but find a way to make them truly terrifying besides being ugly. Perhaps they feed off of good memories leaving your characters so depressed and hopeless they struggle to find the will to even want to fight. Who knows?
From the Shadows
When a reader picks up a horror based story, they expect the unexpected. This gets harder to do with the more experienced horror readers. They have seen many of the tricks and are yearning for even better ones. If you don’t supply that demand, you will only be a mediocre writer. There are still a ton of plots that haven’t been written, don’t get discouraged to find your first idea has already been done. Similar to choosing titles, it is usually the fourth, sixth, or seventh idea that sparks everything.
And once you have that perfect idea, you have to be careful not to ruin it. People walk in patterns and can become predictable if not given thought to what their doing. I watched a bit of The Walking Dead with my sister-in-law. After getting to the second or third season I could predict every scene in which a zombie was about to appear on screen. It kind of frustrated my sister, but I found it humorous. Humorous, not horrifying.
The unknown is one of the most common fears of people and you need to use that in writing. You may plan out your story for it to make sense to you, but don’t write all of that in. Be vague and leave a lot out. The characters are not good at deducing anything and don’t understand much.
At least that is how it goes in pure horror. Mixing and matching that fear factor with another genre can be really intriguing too and opens up even more possible plots. So don’t try to write within the lines too much. Write close to them then drive off the grid in a Ferrari when it is appropriate. That would really horrify someone who follows all the rules.
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