Writing Excuses Episode 26: Horror

What is horror? Why is it scary? HOW is it scary? Forced by their grandfather’s will to spend an entire night in his spooky mansion, our podcasters gather to discuss the nuts and bolts of what horror is (and isn’t) and how it works behind the scenes. Here’s a hint: as with pretty much everything else in writing, the secret comes down to compelling conflicts with engaging characters. Be warned: Howard is going to say something scary, so don’t listen to this podcast alone and/or in the dark.

This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by something close to Dan’s heart.


A descent into madness written from the first person point of view. You are going to descend into madness, your writing will become gibberish or something horrible will happen, and then Brandon will scream.

38 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 26: Horror”

  1. On the bus coming home from writing group and checking the blog from my pda to see if the episode is up and not only is it… But the topic is horror! Thank you thank you thank you!

  2. I’ve always liked the horror movies and books that had more suspense and mystery then the horror movies nowadays that seem to be violently kill people in as many ways as we can in 2 hours. Every one likes to get scared now and then but I don’t find that stuff scary just sickening.I don’t see how people can keep going to see them. I haven’t read a good horror book in years. I hope your book can turn me back to horror genre Dan

    Also don’t know if you’ve seen this but some one should win a Nobel prize for it

  3. Awesome. Thanks for those links, guys, saves me some google-crawling.

    I second Jame, by the way. I seriously think I have yet to listen to a single podcast that hasn’t made me laugh out loud at least once.

    I don’t write horror or read much of it, so this was an interesting one. Also thank you for shedding some light on this ubiquitous “dark fantasy”, which I swear I’d never heard of until I started researching SF litmags and suddenly it was *everywhere*.

  4. I guess I find Lovecraft’s overt racism somewhat distracting. Almost as horrifying as the actual tales he wrote.

  5. Funny that you mention “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a horror story. When we discussed this piece in my college English class we really only looked at it as a feminist piece. I guess horror comes in all forms.

    I have a suggestion/request. Could you publish the weeks writing prompt on the blog page like you publish the weekly sponsor? I don’t mind listening to the podcast multiple times to catch the writing prompt, but when I am in a position to write, I am usually not in a position to listen to my ipod.

  6. To me Horror is like Humor: you have to be able to relate, i.e. something we all fear in one way or another. However, would that not make it mundane if we all relate or can relate to it in some way?

    How then to mix the mundane and the extraordinary: in a genre where the extraordinary has become mundane?

  7. Pants? Seriously?

    Well, I have to agree with Jame, for a horror podcast this was really funny. Hehe.

    Good job, as always, guys.

  8. In horror you have to reduce the competence level of the protagonist.

    When this was mentioned in the podcast, my brother said “[i]That’s[/i] an understatement.”

    Most of the horror I have seen and read seems to require the main characters to have a frontal lobotomy.
    Case in point – “28 weeks later” (the movie).

  9. The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the first true samples of feminist literature, so it is usually studied for that purpose only, but restricting it to just one mode of analysis is doing it a huge disservice. For our purposes here, the real point is how effectively her relationship with her husband heightens the scary/creepy/horror themes of the story. The Yellow Wallpaper is really a marvelous example of so many things we’ve discussed recently: a first-person present tense story with an unreliable narrator, that is effective as horror because of a well-developed non-horror relationship and conflict.

    Also, it scares the willies out of me every time I read it.

  10. So, I have been reading Schlock since about three years ago, and listening to this podcast has introduced me to Elantris, then Mistborn (all of which I am extremely enthusiastic about); however, I have been unable to find any links to Dan’s work on this website or his. Dan, pimp your work!!!

  11. I do not, as yet, have any work to pimp, though I will in March. My career is still in its embryonic stages, but rest assured that I will not shut up about it once it finally hits shelves. For now, um…buy me bacon?

  12. A summary


    And for those who were asking about it, here’s the writing prompt.

    Dan: We’ve been talking about a descent into madness. So the writing prompt is a descent into madness written from the first person point of view. You are going to descend into madness, your writing will become gibberish or something horrible will happen, and then Brandon will scream.

  13. If nothing else this let me reread The Yellow Wallpaper. Given the nature of the previous podcast did anyone else notice the odd tense shift at the end? It goes from present to past for the last few paragraphs. An additional tool to let you know how far detached she has become from the present?

  14. Pants!?! Seriously, has Tor forgotten about you guys?
    This marks the thir, fou… FIFTH podcast without an actual sponsor other than your own works. Next thing you know you guys will be plugging books that don’t even exist yet.

    Still I loved the podcast and got me thinking about the subject in a new way. I never was a horror fan, I have enough nightmares of my own.

  15. Good timing. I just started writing a horror short story.

    I have a question that bridges this topic and the last, viewpoint.

    I have two viewpoint characters. Is it ok to use first person for one, and third person limited for another? I was pondering which to use when I realised if I used both, I could mislead the reader, which would be sweet, but the rule “Don’t break the rules until you are really good at following them” came to mind. Obviously I could try it anyways, but I wanted some opinions first.

    Oh, and by using both I mean one character will always be first person, the other always third person limited.


  16. We have ad offers but we’re re-working the Writing Excuses business plan and we’ve been a little slow to get back to the interested parties. Once Worldcon is over we’ll get back in to shape there.

    As for our own content, ya we’re going to advertise it on the podcast when we can and will probably always do so in place of another ad.

  17. Also, in short fiction, is it as important that the characters are very likable? I just listened to Stories from Second Shift, a Stephen King short story audiobook, and not all the characters were nice people, even the ones that were going through the terror bits.


  18. @Justin – I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that no, characters don’t have to be likeable, but they must still be sympathetic and interesting. These things become even MORE important when a character isn’t likeable. There has to be some reason for your reader to want to spend time with that character despite the fact that they don’t like them (and “I was hoping they’d die at the end” probably isn’t the reason you’re going for, but I’ve read books with that in mind before…) And you probably don’t want *all* unlikeable characters in your novel, because that gets annoying in a hurry. I guess the long and short of it is “as long as we still care”.

    As for the viewpoint thing… Weird stuff like that can sometimes work really well. I think a good rule of thumb is if you’re going to do it, it has to be there for some sort of reason. It should not only not detract from your piece, it should add something to it. Just my thoughts though. ;)

  19. @Justin Lowmaster.

    I read a novel that does just the thing you are attempting to do. The POV is primarily two characters. One is exclusively 1st person and the other is 3rd person limited. It is about a boy and his demon. Also good for analysis of magic rules in a 19th century (I think) London setting.

    The novel is:
    The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1)
    by Jonathan Stroud

    Here is an amazon link to it.


  20. Holy creepy. I hadn’t read The Yellow Wallpaper since the 7th grade, until I followed that link. Even sitting here, in my brightly-lit cubicle, it freaked me right the heck out.

  21. @Justin

    I had the same thought as well.

    (…one character will always be first person, the other always third person limited.)

    What I plan on doing is switching from one to the other by chapter.

    I really what to show the Character Arc for both, but the story itself is much ?better? (being a Horror/Supernatural/Thriller type, I can’t be sure yet) in first person.

    On the other hand, I have read a book (can’t remember which one) in which the writer would identify who was who at the beginning of each character break. They had 3 main characters and I never got lost, I was really intrigued by the way they handled it. Hmmm, I think I’ll go look it up.

  22. Thanks Raethe and Jovas, that helps. Ben, it is a short story, I’m not up to novels yet {:0) I think I’m going to give the two different voice types a try.

  23. A few questions about the horror genre and what is in it and what it isn’t. I’ve always thought of Elantris as having one foot in the horror genre. Mostly because it scared me a bit. Despite the magic system and the world-building fantasy stuff it was sort of a zombie book, no? I thought it was interesting the Brandon kept referring to himself as an armchair observer for this topic given all that.

    And on scaring people. Even asking this question reminds me of an earlier podcast where someone asked if we need plot twists and there was an emphatic YES. Does horror have to be scary? Really scary?

    I’ve read tons of books and great short stories in the horror genre that I really liked all over the various horror sub-genres that didn’t scare me one bit. But I think they are awesome anyway.

    Case in point: pretty much anything involving a vampire or werewolf doesn’t scare me. (Zombies do – I have some issues with death; don’t judge.) Dan emphasized that we have to be really able to identify with the characters because we don’t know what it’s like to be chased by the supernatural monsters. I totally get that. But I don’t think that Anne Rice or Bram Stoker were bad writers because they didn’t manage to spook me.

  24. Everyone else provided links to The Yellow Wallpaper and The Rats in the Wall. I’m posting a link to what I think is the source of the “Burn The Books” strategy. (Mentioned during the discussion on how more information in a horror setting is alwys bad.)

    It’s a Knights of the Dinner Table animation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jbfIRh8kP8 . It includes the line: “You were right, staying in the back of the party with your eyes closed does work!”

  25. Extra Credits, a video-blog that digs into various aspects of videogame design and narrative, has some interesting features on the horror genre. A large portion of it can be adapted to writing technique.

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/where-did-survival-horror-go is sort of an introduction, and gives some reasons or insight for why people like horror stories.

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/symbolism-101 explores some psychology and symbolism as it might relate to horror, focusing on the Self, the Uncanny, and the Other.

    There’s also a few videos on zombies and the Uncanny Valley, which can be useful in writing. Many folks forget that the effect is more than just visual.

  26. Yellow Wallpaper, very tense story – I like the word fraut, almost impossible to believe it was written 113 years ago!! And the commentary by the author an the background is very interesting.

    Certainly some scary stuff there, although interestingly (to me) the line that stayed with me was, ‘He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.’ I presume she means ‘another’ bed, right?

  27. Funny coincidence; for an English class back in 2007, I wrote an essay directly comparing “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Rats in the Walls”.

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