Wednesday, October 24, 2012


 Ever watch the news and hear a story that is so awful you'd rather not know? The stories about innocents dying in house fires set by upset exes, about men killing their wife and children then turning a gun on himself, about serial killers, child molesters, and/or raging gunmen firing on schoolmates or people in theaters. 

This shit is real, people. It happens and that is damn scary.   

What does this have to do with writing horror?
"The essential element {of horror} is the clash between prosaic everyday life and a mysterious, irrational, and potentially supernatural universe."  
             --Douglas E. Winter author of biographies of both Stephen King and Clive Barker
 I'm going to add to what KAK posted yesterday. She said what makes a story scary is "stripping away the veils of normalcy and safety" (AWESOME KAK!). Hmmm. Think of a hotel room's phone ringing. Normal, right? 

Not if its landline connection is a severed and frayed cord.... 

See? Normalcy evaporates. The laws of the universe as you know it no longer apply. Safety is suddenly in question.

The next stop on this ride to Creepyville is to show your character reacting. Because what you slip in where you've stripped these layers out should also be powerfully character defining even as they propel the story on.

In the new story I've been working on, a certain character is put in a situation where a series of "the worst things imaginable" are happening to her. So how did I approach this?

I thought about what the "worst things imaginable" really were. I quickly realized that MY list would be vastly different than this character's list would be. That meant research--YAY--I love research.

Wait a minute.

This research included discovering things I never wanted to know. I read about dogs that were used as test subjects of shock treatments where part of the floor was electrified. I read about rats that were put in big glass jars with water just to see how long they would swin and try to survive. I read about unremorseful killers, and I read victims accounts. I read about concentration camps and the bizarre and cruel things humans have done to other humans, examples of how a total lack of empathy is one definition of evil.

Not a to-be-read pile most people want to choose from.
But in the midst of all this unsavory information was a kernel of truth and a drop of shock that was right for my story. I can tell you, crawling into this character's head every day as I wrote these scenes, then crawling back out again wasn't exactly a sweet piece of chocolate cake. Doing terrible things to my character meant I had to think like the attacker--not fun--and I had to think like the victim--even less fun. 

Your character must not just experience this event, but suffer it. (i.e. feel something) Each subsequent event needs to escalate this initial response. A lurking mood of menace grows into that sensation of an icy hand on the shoulder, which swells into a burning scream stuck in her throat. It's mood and its setting ---oh think of the language you can use! Make a list of words that fit the mood you want to evoke (like moist--LOVE IT TUCK!) and then let your writing prowess shine. Show us your adjective brilliance. Show us your restraint. Show us the eerie, the pain, and build that terror.

Give us readers that kernel of truth and that drop of shock. Show us smoke and mirrors after you've locked us in the funhouse without a door. Make us bite our nails with worry, hold us hostage in your frightful tale, an you'll have us sleeping with the lights on.


  1. "Your character must not just experience this event, but suffer it. (i.e. feel something)"

    Pretty sure that kid with the scorpion from hell on its face is going suffer for a loooong time. (Yes, yes, I am ignoring the fact you led this article is a huge pic of a spider. ~shudder~)

  2. KAK! Thats not a scorpion...its a face hugger from Alien, complete with the little pod on the upper left... :)

  3. Eeeew! I totally missed the pod! ~checks Groupon for ALIEN therapy packages~