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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The Literature of Love… Scary Love

(c) Prawny

(c) Prawny

Muses, I want to share with you my love inspired reading list. There is no better day to share this list than on Valentine’s Day. Ah, when romance is in the air, I get this dizzy-tingly sensation in my head and a flutter in my stomach… a response also known as nausea.

What, did you think I was actually going to share a list of my favorite Romance stories? You did!? Oh, sweet muffins… NO! (*elbows Chris in the ribs* “Stop laughing!”) The list that I am sharing today is of love inspired horror stories. Nothing says “I Love You” more than a sharp object through the heart.

In all seriousness, authors who are able to combine these two distinct and contrasting genres within one story are able to weave a tale that leaves readers completely out of touch with their emotions. The ratio of fear and love must be balanced to elicit a sense of uncertainty on whether one is to feel a sense of romance or terror.

Love camouflages itself with a sparkly, warm exterior. However, underneath its disguise, love is a dark, murky beast that lures in those naive and unaware. When you let your guard down and invite love in, the one you open yourself up to holds your beating heart in his or her hands. The organ, which is sparking your life, is to be treated with a tender touch. Yet, humans are not gentle creatures by nature. Uncaring emotions always surface and your delicate heart is easily crushed by the fingers of the one you trusted with every ounce of your being.

Love is patient. Love is observant. Love waits for the perfect time to strike. Love turns into the most horrific of monsters. Love will break you…

On this day that celebrates romance, read something that will make your heart race from both tenderness and terror. Read a story that exploits the unmerciful nature of love:

1. Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
6. Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen
7. Northanger Abby by Jane Austen
8. The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allen Poe
9. The Mask by Robert Chambers

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Do you have a favorite story that combines the romance and horror genre? Comment below.

 

Writing Dark Stuff

Writing Dark StuffAmanda recently wrote a post on getting rid of our writing filters and I’m still thinking about the topic.  My writing friends are not surprised when I pull a twisted, blackened story out of the stuff between my ears, but my relatives are always taken aback. I’m the responsible one, the nice one, the compassionate empathetic one. I laugh easily and smile often (regardless of my perpetual RBF). I look harmless.

But there’s a part of me that is happy to write stories that horrify my mother and make my children a little nervous. I research serial killers and psychopathology. I spent several months learning all I could about long-term captivity and Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t mind talking about autopsies and the Body Farm at dinner (I assure you they very much mind listening).

Joanna Penn has commented several times on her videos that people ask how such a happy, smiling woman can write about things like corpse desecration.  I understand how she feels. There’s something about the dark side that feeds my inner storyteller. I wish I could remember who said this (if you know the reference, please let me know), but someone commented that comedians are often quite depressed and people with bad childhoods often learn to entertain. He or she posits that people with normal lives or happy childhoods might wander into the blacker side of storytelling. I suspect most horror writers are quite normal. I don’t think, if you met me in person, you’d suspect I’ve written about a serial killer’s first time or the calculated revenge of pets.

My filters are to avoid writing anything that might offend family and more delicate friends. For the most part I don’t write gruesome, but turning off that filter on occasion has led me to a few pieces I’m quite happy to have written. The freedom to write what comes to mind is the best writing gift I’ve ever given myself (and credit is due to the Muses for encouraging it).

So why am I telling you this? It’s because I hope all writers will allow themselves space and time to write what comes. You don’t ever have to show it to someone or publish it, but putting the words down is a gift to your inner writer. I think there are two reason for that. The first is that you are getting beyond your filters and thoughts of “I can’t write that!” The second is  that, since writing begets writing, you are opening yourself up to other story ideas if you let yourself go.

I do have hard lines I don’t cross. Ever. But they are a choice rather than a filter imposed upon me by someone else. I hope that makes sense. This post is as much my reaction to Amanda’s encouragement as it is my hope for fellow writers. It’s written in first person because I believe we are not alone in our anxieties when it comes to the words we write. It won’t kill me to be vulnerable, right? And if it helps someone, so much the better.

What I want to say is to write what is in you to write. If that’s zombies, cannibalism, human experiments a la Dr. Mengele, or (insert squeamish thought here), then write it. Leave it in a corner of your hard drive forever if you want, but all writing is good practice and opening yourself up to writing without filters teaches your writer brain to be more forthcoming.


Have you written anything you feel might horrify someone close to you? How difficult was it to write?

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.”

 

 

 

Invoking Fear with the Horror Genre

Want to hear the truth about the horror genre? It’s going to scare you. Did you really think it wouldn’t? No one in their right mind should ever open a horror story without the intent of being scared. If you go into the text blindly, well then dearie, you are in for one wild ride. Yet, those who are naive about this genre are my favorite kind of readers. I love watching them become afraid because their fear is unexpected.  Am I sadistic? Well, maybe a little. It is a compliment to see terror spread across their faces and light their eyes. Please don’t have me committed for saying that. I would never do anything to anyone–except give them nightmares.

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

(c) wintersixfour

(c) wintersixfour

Fear allows a person to see and understand their most inner thoughts and feelings. One truly learns about themselves when they analyze their deepest terrors. Authors of the horror genre know this well and use it to their advantage. They take the most innate, natural of things and twist them into an alternate reality that riles up terror in a reader. It is an art. To be a horror writer, you must love fear. You must get in touch with your own fears and expose them, become one with them, accept them. Once you have accomplished this, then you will know how to craft your words to bring out the fear in others.

Integrating your own understanding of fear (and acceptance) into your work is a good tactic to produce a well received (and frightening) story. Horror writing has to be strong and your voice unique. There are also several core elements that need to be kept in check while drafting your tale of the macabre. If you want to know more about these elements, check out my article Core Elements of a Horror Story

Horror is an ultimate fear and terror that inhibits a person’s body, mind, or soul.  It is the knowing and foreboding feeling that a situation will not end with a positive outcome.  It is the darkness trying to overcome the light, and the epic battle that ensues.  Horror can be strictly psychological or it can be wholly physical.  It can be blood, guts, and mutilations or a strict torture of the mind.

Horror is the element that turns sweet dreams into heart-ripping nightmares.

What “horror” is not:  Happy endings

True horror will never have a happy ending.  Even if by the end of a book or movie the evil is vanquished, there will always be a cliffhanger that shows a seed of the evil still exists.  The evil is left in hiding to wait for and plan the optimal moment to reveal itself and wreak havoc on a new batch of characters.

Within the realm of literature and film, horror is a simple genre.  It is the genre that instills terror within the audience by any means necessary. However, a book or film does not have to be one straightforward fear fest.  The work’s genre can be of a hybrid-genre with horror and another means:

Dark Fiction:  This usually consists of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, and / or speculative that have a heavy element of horror ingrained.
Gothic:  This is a Horror genre classic that has influences of mystery and / or romance.
Comedy-Horror:  This hybrid pretty much explains itself as the work contains a mix of horror and comedic elements.
Weird West: A Western themed work that highlights the elements of horror, sci-fi, and / or the speculative.

Horror, as a secluded genre in of itself, can be broken down into the following sub-genres:

Psychological:  The focus of this sub-genre takes place more in a character’s head, playing heavily on his or her fears and morals.  There may or may not be an element of blood.

Slasher:  This is your classic Freddy Krueger / Jason / Michael Myers villain, where the antagonist murders characters through violent and visceral methods.  The murder weapon of choice is always a sharp object used to maim or dismember.  This sub-genre typically mixes with the splatter sub-genre, but if the actual act of the murder occurs off scene (not visual), then the splatter element is not viable.

Splatter:  With this genre, I do not personally consider it to always be hand in hand with the Slasher sub-genre.  You can have a Splatter film without having the Slasher element.  A good example (and the most disgusting movie in existence) is The Human Centipede… and all of its subsequent segments.  Splatter is a horribly gruesome and visceral sub-genre, but the antagonist goal is not to kill the main character(s), but to merely affect the a character’s physical body.  This sub-genre relies more heavily on the visual effects of the blood and guts rather than the action of expelling the gore.

Supernatural:  This sub-genre highlights the elements that are not of the “natural / human” world.  Typically the sub-genre highlights entities from a heaven or hell realm.  Such fodder are ghosts, demons, angels, etc.

Monster:  This sub-genre focuses on those beings that are from the “natural / human” world, but are either not human or genetically altered humans.  Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-man, Toxie, and Kaijus are all considered monsters.  The monster may or may not be bent on the destruction of the human world, but the actions of the monster (whether good or evil) do instill the element of fear within humanity.

Extraterrestrial:  Any life form that comes from “outer space” that is not considered a human.  The extraterrestrial may take on a humanoid form, but genetically they are not a pure human.

Weird:  This is a mashup of any non-human entity / life-form that the human mind cannot comprehend or extends to a forbidden knowledge.  This sub-genre typically uses a mix of elements of the supernatural, monsters, and extraterrestrial.  It can also sprinkle in some of the splatter and psychological sub-genres.  Every story that H.P Lovecraft wrote would fall into this category.  The Call of Cthulhu is a prime example that contains a mixture of the horror sub-genres: monster, extraterrestrial, and psychological.

When thinking of these genres / sub-genres, keep in mind the horror industry cycle. The horror genre is currently in flux.  On my personal blog, I mention several times my interpretation of the horror industry cycle. With this new year, we have come full circle back to the age of monsters. The slasher movies and stories of the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s have been buried.  The ride of the Zombie-Vampire-Werewolf craze is on a downhill trend since its rebirth in the early 2000’s.  Ghosts and demons are about to hit a mid-life crisis before fading back into the Earth.  However, a new egg was laid about 5 years ago and has hatched.  Monsters are in full force this year.

Horror can embody a large element in almost every genre within literature and film.  Hybrid and sub-genres of horror can be mixed and mashed to create one story of complete and utter terror.  And to think, the information in this post is only related to fiction!  There is a whole other side to horror within the non-fiction realm through biographies, memoirs, and documentaries.  To think of the gruesome memoir that could have been written by the hands of Elizabeth Bathory!

Tap into your own fears and show them to the world. Understand the horror industry’s cycle use it to your advantage to strengthen your work. Pick a horror genre that well suits your goals. Follow the core elements of horror.

Integrate these tips into your writing and one day you will become a Master of Horror.