Elements of Writing Horror: Something Must Die

(c) hotblack

(c) hotblack

The goal of horror is to elicit an intense fear, and there nothing that humans fear more than death. Death is the last curtain call, the ending to the show. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has some level of terror about the final end. Fear of death is universal. Horror stories feed off this trepidation. Every single tale of the macabre contains a death, which is essential to amp up the panic in a character.

The purpose of a story is show the growth of a central character. In order to grow, there needs to be a triggering event that transports the character in a positive or negative direction. Yes, characters can grow negatively and fall from where they originated. Typically in the genre of horror, the main character does descend. Eternal loss is a plot tactic for this catalyst. The build up to death is what generates the character’s (and essentially the reader’s) fear — the intrinsic element of horror.  The key to utilizing the tactic of death is to create the eternal loss of the one thing that the main character holds most dear. The event of the death will be the crux of growth for the character: the moment of his / her turning point.

Fear is an aid to the warrior. It is a small fire burning. It heats the muscles, making us stronger. Panic comes when the fire is out of control, consuming all courage and pride.

— David Gemmell, Lord of the Silver Bow

The principal death in a story may not always happen to a human. Death can be existential, relating to non-human, inanimate, or intangible things.  The death may be of a beloved pet, favorite notebook, or prized vehicle. Think about how Louis reacted to the hit-and-run of Church in Pet Semetary, and the horror that developed out of that death… and disturbing “funeral”.  Then look at what happened with the death of Gauge. Stephen King really upped the fear factor by viciously killing off Louis’ cat and kid! A death can also be the demise of hope, happiness, or dreams. There is nothing more horrific in the world than watching the hope in someone wither away and die (think Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).

Sometimes the best death to play up is the “death of oneself”. Fear of one’s own mortality is experience by every human. We are all afraid of when we will die. Add to that, there is also the fear of how we will experience that final moment. I think everyone hopes that they will go peacefully in their sleep. Yet, in most cases, that can’t be further from truth. In brutal honesty, most of us will go with some amount of pain from this world. Detaching from a body that has carried us through the years is not something that I can believe to be easy (or painless). Sending your main character on the downward, negative spiral through the stages of their own death, and fighting to come to terms that they are about to be snuffed out, will hold the reader in suspense and fear until the inevitable end.

If you are looking to include horror in your story, death must be a component. Your character, within the realm of this genre, cannot evolve (or depending on your plot, “de-evolve”) without it. Deduce what type of loss your main character dreads the most. Lead up to the final moments with accelerated heart beats, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. Make them question or go through the seven stages of grief. Continue to evoke apprehension in the protagonist that they may one day lose this “thing” that they treasure, and then make them suffer in agony as you brutally tear it away. Your character’s anxiety and despair will transfer to your reader, pulling him / her deeper into your story and rouse their empathy. You will make them resonate with the loss and tremble in fear. And that is the ultimate goal of horror: to make your readers scared.

If you want to be successful in writing horror, something must die in your story.


If you are interested in enhancing horror in your writing, check out these other Elements of Horror posts by The Sarcastic Muse
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Write or Robots will take over the World: An Evening with Chuck Wendig

(c) Amanda Headlee

(c) Amanda Headlee

At the time of this writing, it is 9:09 pm EDT on August 17, 2015. My brain is fueled by espresso and California Tortilla’s Chips & Queso (that shit is liquid gold). I just spent the evening listening to Chuck Wendig talk about his amazing new novel, Zeroes. So let it be known that it’s about to get all crazy up in here!

First off, if you don’t know Chuck Wendig, stop reading this now and go to his website, Terribleminds. You’re welcome.

Now that we have established that and you are more privy to his world of writing, let me start by saying his book launch of Zeroes at the Doylestown Bookshop was Earth shattering. Not only was the night filled with an except reading from his latest novel along with a Q&A session, but he discussed his writing process, the imminent possibility of A.I.s taking over the world, and terrifying realities of the interconnectivity to EVERYTHING via the Internet. Needless to say, the little story minions in my head started conjuring up ideas and I had to poke them with a sharp stick to get them to shut up so that I could hear Chuck speak.

Horror

His views on the horror genre closely resemble mine, and to hear that validation was something that I am very thankful for. As I have said in other articles on the topic, “horror” is not necessarily a genre, but an emotion. It can transverse all genres and rear its ugly head when least expected. A tactic, that when properly used, will keep a reader fully engaged with the story and embed a scary memory in their brain. It is the most primal emotion that humans feel:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft

A strong tool that all writers should equip in their arsenal for world domination via books. Chuck is one who wields horror like a young, charming psychopath who found a shiny, new machete in his daddy’s dresser drawer and has a vendetta against his hometown. He meticulously plans out the invocation of fear in his stories. All actions of “horror” are precisely placed to generate the most explosive experience of terror in the reader. Using horror in his work is like “turning the volume from 0 to 10”. The fear tactic is expertly played.

Authenticity vs. Fact

Chuck indicated that research is tricky, and while important (especially when writing on a topic that you are not a subject matter expert), with fiction there is an allowable amount of leeway. In most cases, authenticity is favored more than cold hard facts. True accuracy is not always riveting. Case in point, his novel Zeroes delves into realm of hacking. Hacking itself, for an observer, can be rather boring. Hacking in the real world is someone sitting at a computer screen for hours upon end stringing together lines of code. Chuck equated this to an author being observed writing a novel. Watching paint dry is more exciting — unless you spying on a writing Harlan Ellison sitting in a certain 5th Avenue bookstore window. TV shows, like the CSI types, tend to play up the suspense and make hacking look like a quick push of a button to blow up a helicopter or cut the electric grid in a major metro area. Unrealistic portrayals. Scenes like these are where authenticity is favored over factual content. The authenticity is more exciting than reality.

One is writing fiction, after all. So some fictitious license is acceptable. Just as long as your creative spin is believable.

The Thunderdome

How do you come up with your ideas? Chuck’s response, “How do you get them to stop?”. The plague that most writers experience: over influx of ideas that traumatizes the brain because we can’t find the time / energy / finger strength to write down every tidbit. Chuck alluded to his selection process for choosing an idea as if his brain were the Thunderdome. Whichever idea survives the odds against the others (the idea that resurfaces) is the victor and tends to be the one worthy for a story. A good analogy for any writer who struggles to pinpoint one concept to follow through on: choose the idea that resurfaces over and over again. That may be your brain’s subliminal way of saying, “Hey dummy, pay attention to this one. It’s some good stuff!”

Evolve your Writing Process

Towards the end of the evening, Chuck made a rather keen remark about the writing process that all writers (nonfiction, fiction, business, etc.) need to heed:

Writers should always modify their writing process

As writers, we are continually evolving and adapting to the world around us. Thus, our writing process should grow along with our evolution. The writer we are today is not the same writer we were 10 years ago nor will become 10 years in the future. Your writing process must be agile and reflect your growth. A dormant, unchanging writing process will never lead to success. There is nothing learned or gained from stagnation. The biggest take away from Chuck’s discussion is to allow your writing process to be fluid. It should be adaptable and agile, morphing into a form that differs year to year to reflect the amazing writer that you are evolving into.

This is his best piece of advice from the evening.

Whoopies…

I lied. The best piece of advice is: “Don’t kick the robots. They remember.”