Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.20: Horror as a Subgenre

Steve Diamond joins us again to talk horror, this time about using elemental horror as part of our stories’ elemental ensemble. We discuss how the sense of dread can be a page-turning motivation, and how it can complement the other “keep on reading” motivations we set out to invoke.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Write a scene twice: first, write it so that there’s humor, and then horror. Then write it so that the horror comes first, and the humor is last.

Thing of the week: Swan Song, by Robert McCammon, narrated by Tom Stechshulte.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Why does horror make people turn the pages? Horror is universal. We recognize it, we connect to the characters in it, and we get a moment of catharsis at the end of it. We like to think that perhaps what we imagined is worse that what the author came up with. We want to know how it turns out and hope it will be a little better than we expect, but we’re wrong. So in adventure, we want to see how they overcome, while in horror, we want to see how big the train wreck is at the end? Rubbernecking for horror? Yes, although some people want to be afraid, they want to be anxious. But still safe! You get people to keep reading by focusing on how the horrific element changes the story, the characters, the plot, the setting. Horror exerts profound change on characters, it illuminates and motivates the character. How to you transition to a horror segment? How do you get into the cave? Anticipation, dread, being afraid of the moment and what is coming. A horror segment can expose important points about the character. Don’t forget uncertainty. And development. And loss of control. Oh, and visceral sensory details. Open the door to the basement, and it breathes on you. How do you hybridize horror? Loss of control. Beat, beat, stab. A moment of horror may be seeing the one thing that’s out of place, realizing that this is a clue to something terribly wrong about to happen, and the emotional reaction to that. Look at the contrast — horror in normalcy. Use the inescapable certainty that the character you love is going to do the wrong thing, because they have to. Horror can make the humor funnier, the action actionier, and the love lovier. Horror as a spice can set the reader up to really enjoy the good stuff.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 20.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Horror As Subgenre.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And once again, we have our good friend, Steve Diamond.
[Steve] How’s it going?
[Brandon] Pretty good. Thank you for coming back and talking some more about horror with us.
[Howard] Yeah, it’s been two weeks, Steve.
[Steve] It’s been forever.
[Howard] Good to see you again.
[Steve] So glad to be back with you guys again.
[Mary] We’ve been in the basement the whole time. [Screech!]

[Brandon] All right. We’re going to talk a little bit about using horror as a subgenre, but first, I want to dig into a question of… This question I ask every time. What makes people turn the pages? When you have a horror element in your story, why are… Why is that pulling people through the story?
[Dan] The great thing about horror is that it is so universal. I think it is profoundly universal. Every story can, and often does, have an element of it. In a romance, the idea that the person you love might not love you back and you’ll be alone forever. Like, that’s horror. That’s straight up horror right there. So we can all recognize it when it happens, and we all feel connected to the characters that are going through it. I think we have an incredible moment of catharsis at the end of it. That no matter how bad it was, and no matter how profoundly the the characters lost, we survived it. We have this great moment of victory, I guess.
[Howard] There’s a lot of different reasons to turn the pages. One of my favorites is the hope that the horrible thing that I have imagined is in fact worse than what the author thought of. That I’m going to turn the page and things might somehow get better. I love being tricked into believing that. I mean, I don’t really love it.
[Howard] But those are the most effective horror stories for me, is where I keep turning the page because I want to know how it turns out and I want the ending to at least be a little bit better than what I thought of, and then being wrong.

[Brandon] So could we say in a way that this is a reversal of adventure that we talked about? In the adventure, we want to see what cool thing the protagonists come up with to overcome these obstacles, and in horror, it’s that we are waiting to see what kind of gruesome train wreck is going to happen at the end of this plot cycle. Because we know something terrible is coming?
[Howard] There’s… What you’re describing is kind of rubbernecking for horror. I certainly do that. That’s the only way I can get through a horror movie, is to tell jokes at the screen. I can’t just sit there and be viscerally afraid, because I don’t like that. Psychologically, I just don’t like that. But there are people who do, and the experience they’re having is not the rubbernecking of I want to see what horrible thing happens. It’s I want to feel the horrible thing happen and be afraid. I want that adrenaline rush. I want that anxiety burst. I don’t understand how those people think, but I will sell them stories.
[Steve] But at the same time, to piggyback onto that, but then they know they’re still safe. That’s why they’ll keep reading. Now specifically, to this being horror as a subgenre, the reason… The way you can get people to keep reading in this is how is the horrific element that you’re introducing into your story fundamentally changing what you’re introducing it into. So, if it’s a Western, how is it changing it? If it’s a fantasy, how is it changing it?
[Brandon] How is it changing the characters, how is it changing the setting?
[Steve] Yeah, the characters, the plot, the setting. It can be the economics of a world if you’re like Tim Lebbon or China Mieville. How does that affect it? That’s what keeps people reading.
[Mary] I think within that, the thing that Brandon just said about the character is that when you go through a horrific experience, it does exert profound change on you. You come out of the other side totally different. It’s impossible to go through it unscathed. So a lot of times, horror can, as a subelement, can really illuminate the character. It can also be something that motivates them. It’s why a lot of books start with the fridging of the girlfriend, which is something that I do not encourage, but it’s because you need something… Or the author thinks they need something to motivate the character forward. But a lot of times, that’s true, it’s just it’s not necessarily something you need at the beginning of the book.

[Brandon] Now let’s say you’re writing a story. It’s an adventure story, but they’re going to go now into the cave, and it’s going to enter a horror segment. Right? Where you’re transitioning, you’re kind of taking the power away from the characters for a little while so that you can ramp up tension and things like this. What are the touchstone elements of what will make that sequence a true horror story? Like what are the moments and points along the path?
[Howard] For me, one of the best times I’ve seen this done was in an older Michael Z. Williamson book, which was very much an action guns sort of book. Yet there is this flashback in which we learn why this character is kind of broken. He’s broken because he was the soldier who had to give the order to murder everybody in the village. We watch that event unfold. We watch him approach that decision with dread and the realization that “Oh, my gosh. He’s… He’s going to give that order. He’s going to become that person that I really don’t want him to become, and I’m going to have to spend the whole rest of this book following this person who is in point of fact a monster as evidenced by what happens right here.” As that unfolded, yeah, I was horrified. Then the book proceeded with larger action.
[Brandon] So are you saying that anticipation is part of that? Anticipation…
[Mary] I think dread.
[Brandon] Dread?
[Howard] Dread.
[Steve] Yes. It’s the fearful anticipation.
[Mary] Well, for me, dread is the anticipation of fear. Or, I mean, it is… It is both being in fear and also afraid of what is coming. It’s not just being afraid of the moment, but it’s also being afraid of what is coming next.
[Dan] I think one of the… And Howard already hit on this, that the ability to use a… You insert a scene of horror to reveal something important about your characters. We need to learn that this character, when the going gets really bad, she’s going to step up to the plate. Okay, then when she goes down into that cave in your example, it’s going to be an outright horror story in there and she’s going to get through it. This other character, we need to find out that he has some specific breaking point. Well, we’re going to throw him into just one little horror scene where everything goes wrong and we’re going to watch him become selfish or whatever and see, “Oh, that’s his big character flaw.” Horror is so good at exposing those.
[Steve] It’s that whole idea that… Earlier, Mary, you talked about more like primal fears that we have. In your example, specifically, Brandon, you were talking about “Oh, there’s a cave” and what happens, how can you turn that into a horror segment in a story? To kind of wrap all this together, there’s the moments of okay, how are the characters going to react to this? How far are they going to go? Or are they going to retreat? This uncertainty that comes along with it all. How much… Again, the uncertainty of will they get through this? To go back to Mary’s statement, will they get through this horrific scene unscathed? Or, as a reader, I’m hoping they don’t.
[Steve] Because I want to see how they change.
[Brandon] You want to see development.
[Steve] I want to see how they change and develop, and then how that’s going to influence further segments of horror to the positive or the negative.
[Mary] I think it’s the basic… For me, it’s the how do they handle the loss of control.
[Steve] Absolutely.
[Mary] Then, within that, also one of the things that I think is often very specific to horror is the really visceral sensory details. It’s not just that bad things are happening, it’s that the reader is completely immersed in… It’s not just “there was a pool of liquid on the floor.” It’s that the slime… You talked about this at one point years ago, Dan. I’m pointing at him, for the visual… For the video feed people.
[Mary] That it’s not just the… If you touch the liquid, it’s not just “Oh, the liquid is slimy.” It’s that the liquid clings and… it’s being trapped by the details as much as anything else.
[Howard] And it’s just a little bit warmer than my hand.
[Mary] Or a little colder. In The Puppet Kitchen, which is actually a place where we make puppets. It’s in this old church. We’ve got all these fun things upstairs. But then I know…
[Steve?] That sounds horrible.
[Mary] It is. And it is so cliché, because you go… You open the door to the basement, and basements are usually cold. You open the door to the basement, and this warm, moist air comes up from the basement.
[Steve] Breathing at you?
[Mary] Breathing at you, yeah. There’s a single bulb. You go down, and there’s a tricycle. You’re like…
[Steve] What is wrong with you?

[Brandon] Okay. I’ve got to stop us.
[Howard] We need to do a book of the week?
[Brandon] We need to do our book of the week. Our book of the week actually is one that Steve’s going to pitch to us.
[Steve] Okay. I’m going to pitch to you guys Swan Song by Robert McCammon. Robert McCammon is one of the finest horror authors to ever have graced this Earth. He is a terrific human being as well. Swan Song was basically his answer to The Stand by Stephen King. It is just a glorious romp through an apocalypse that… Even though this was written in the 80s, still feels… It still feels relevant today. It still feels like this could happen today. The characters in it are fabulous. The evil characters in it are fabulous. Robert McCammon does something in horror that very few other people do and can get away with it. That’s he leaves you with a glimmer of hope at the end. All of the terrible stuff happens. ALL of the terrible stuff happens, but there’s still this slight bit of hope. Just enough to make you wonder, is it all going to be okay or not?
[Brandon] You can experience this for yourself by going to, start a 30-day trial with Audible, download Swan Song by Robert McCammon. It’s read by, and I’m going to try this last name, I’m sorry, Tom Shoeshult. [Stechshulte] Shay shee shy she…
[Howard] Wow.
[Brandon] Even Mary’s having trouble. That makes me feel better. Oh, yes. It’s German. You’d know it.
[Dan] Stechshulte would be the German.
[Mary] Yeah. Well, there was a moment of also trying to read your handwriting.
[Brandon?] That’s easy handwriting.
[Howard] Yeah, that’s runes that we’re only supposed to be looking at with one eye.

[Brandon] Let’s move on to talking really about hybridizing horror. I’m going to raise two examples of hybrid horrors that I think will be illustrative of this. The first one is Seven. Seven is a hybrid mystery/horror. I think that a lot of horror has mystery elements. The other one is the one Dan raised last time, which is Aliens. Which, I would argue that Alien is a true horror, and Aliens is an adventure with a strong horror sub theme, and that they specifically changed the genre for that one in order to give a new experience.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] What makes these work?
[Howard] In both cases, there’s the loss of control. We see… In Seven, we’re following these detectives and the closer they get to solving the mystery, the more danger they are placing themselves in.
[Steve] Or the worse it’s getting.
[Brandon] You could even… You could say Seven…
[Howard] The worst things are getting.
[Brandon] It starts as a mystery, and at the end is a true horror.
[Steve] True horror.
[Howard] I think that in exploring horror as a subgenre element, those are great examples, but it’s also useful to look at every time George RR Martin has killed off a character. Because taking an epic fantasy, and giving you a moment of horror when a thing that often happens in epics happens, is a great way to explore the use of that tool. Because it’s… I think of it the way I think of humor. Humor, I think of beat, beat, punchline. Horror I think of, in that environment, I think of it as beat, beat, stab.
[Howard] Where I set something up, and then I position it and contextualize it, and then I… Then there’s this twist, this turn, that is surprising and it stabs you. That’s…
[Brandon] See, I’m going to argue that George RR Martin’s… That just killing characters is not a horror element. He does have horror elements in those book. But the min… man… mun…
[Howard] It’s not the overall body count, but the… Things like the red wedding felt very horrific to me.
[Steve] That’s a very horror scene. I would say, if we are talking specifically about Martin, and kind of the grimdark genre as a whole, the prologue to the very first novel is absolutely horror. Then, when Ned Stark bites it. Because that’s the very first taste of it that you get, that this is awful. It stops becoming horror as the series goes on.
[Brandon] Because you expect it. Like, Song of [Rolands] has a high body count of main characters. It is not a horror in the least bit.

[Mary] One of the things that I want to talk about is using horror in things that are not dark and grim and gritty. For instance, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s a straight up romance, but the main character is… Reads Gothic horror novels, that’s what she reads. So she interprets everything as if she is in a horror novel. So there’s this… She’s like, “I hear the scratching at the window. It must be somebody trying to get in.”
[Dan] Northanger Abbey’s so good.
[Mary] It’s a tree branch.
[Brandon] It’s a great book. If you haven’t read it, it’s her only actual satire.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Which is… A lot of people don’t understand as they go into that one.
[Dan] Masterpiece Theatre did to date my favorite Jane Austen adaptation of any of her books is their Northanger Abbey.
[Mary] But one of the things about that, and about Austen and using horror in non-grim dark settings is that using that moment where the protagonist recognizes the single element that’s out of place, which is the clue that something is about to go terribly wrong, and their emotional reaction to it. That you can have these moments of horror without having like an entire bloodbath scene.
[Steve] The great thing about that, and the reason that works so well, is because of the normalcy that it is contrasted against. So you have these very normal moments, these very average moments, and then, like you said, that one thing that shifts just a little bit. You go, “Oh! We’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?”
[Brandon] Or that momentary loss of control.
[Steve] Yeah. Absolutely.
[Brandon] Is a big part of it. I think of how many epic fantasies you will have this scene where somebody gets kidnapped from their perspective. It happened in The Wheel of Time to the protagonist. Suddenly, the person you’ve been following, who’s the hero, who’s in charge, is no longer in charge, is without power, and is in a horrific situation. This elicits those same emotions.
[Dan] One of the ways that you can use horror like this, and that loss of control, is kind of what Howard was talking about earlier, is that anticipation. Seven does this. A lot of tragedies in fact do this. Othello is a great example. Where you spend the whole story getting to know a character, and then all of a sudden you present them with a choice, and you know exactly how their mind works, and you know they’re going to choose the wrong thing. That is a powerful moment of horror that can be used in any setting. You don’t need supernatural stuff, you don’t need blood, you don’t need gore. You just need that inescapable certainty that the character you love is going to do the wrong thing.
[Mary] Sometimes, also that the character knows what the consequences are going to be, but they don’t… There is no other option.
[Dan] That’s a great way of showing… The character’s in control. They’re the one’s making the decision. But really, they’re not. Fate has kind of forced their hand. Or, their own personality, their tragic flaw. So you get this great contrast of control and lack of control at the same time, and it’s just delicious.
[Steve] It’s like the metaphor of getting into a mine cart, and you start down the railway, and then the handbrake just breaks…
[Brandon?] Busts.
[Howard] Your first mistake was getting in the mine.
[Steve] Getting in the mine cart?
[Mary] Your first mistake was being in one of Steve’s stories.

[Howard] The whole elemental genre concept, as we talk about how these things make us feel, putting horror… For me, anyway, putting horror in anything is because I want you to feel all of the things. If I’ve made you anxious and afraid, if I’ve given you dread, then when I have a stand up and cheer moment later, you’re going to cheer and you’re going to cry a little bit because you get to cheer when I make you laugh, you’re not just going to laugh, you’re going to laugh and feel relief. It’s one of those things that a good, and we said this a couple of weeks ago, a good chef will craft a meal so that the flavors complement each other. You put horror in a thing because it makes the humor funnier, it makes the action actionier, it makes the love lovier.
[Steve] Or…
[Dan] That’s the title of our romance anthology.
[Mary] Love is lovier?
[Howard] Making the love lovier?
[Brandon] A night of loving lovier.
[Steve] The other way to do it, though, is to take those things but reverse them. So you use the humor to set up the horror and make it that much worse.
[Howard] This is the difference between you and me. You’re a bad person.
[Steve] I try so hard.
[Dan] So I want to point out really quick before we end, one of the things we talk about with horror is that it… You don’t have hope, that it’s going to end poorly no matter what. When you are using horror as a spice to another genre, you can escape that. You can use it to your advantage. Because here’s a scene of horror, and you know that that scene will end poorly. But like Howard said, all that does is set you up so that the good stuff that comes later is that much better when you get to it.
[Steve] This works really well in Westerns. When you mix a horror element into the Western genre. Because the two… The unknown, beyond the border, all of these things that you’re unfamiliar with, that things can come at you in the night. It works really well when you put a little bit of a horror element into a Western. Then you still have the good stuff at the end.

[Brandon] All right. It’s been great. I have to actually cut us now, so that we can…
[Brandon] I know.
[Dan] You have to cut us now?
[Steve] Wait a minute.
[Mary] Wait! [Scream]
[Brandon] Mary, you have some homework for us?
[Mary] Yes. So we’ve been talking about using this as a spice, and the contrast that you can get. So I’m going to ask you to write two things. It’s basically the same scene, but the first time, I want you to write it so that there’s a funny element and then tragedy or horror happens. Then, I want you to take that and reverse it so that the second time you write it, the horror comes first and then the comedy.
[Brandon] The exact same things?
[Mary] The exact same things, but just reverse that so that those elements are in different relationships to each other. So that you can see what happens when you start flipping these pieces around.
[Brandon] Excellent. Once again, thank you Steve.
[Steve] Thank you.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.