Writing Excuses Episode 26: Horror
Key points: Horror is not just scary, it’s horrifying. Main characters are usually less competent than they need to be. Start by making the reader identify with the character, then put them through terror. The protagonist’s internal faults should at least balance the external horrors. An inescapable setting forces the confrontation. Horror: the more you know, the worse it looks. Horror is very personal, almost a private scale.
[Editorial Comment: I had a very hard time writing up these notes. I hope they are reasonably coherent, or at least give an impression of what was said.]
The horror genre: what is it?
Howard: I think of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. That’s what I think.
Brandon: and I think of vampires and werewolves.
Dan: horror really includes all that. One of the things that you notice with horror is that it is not really a coherent genre unto itself anymore because it has been splintered off into dark fantasy and dark urban and …
Brandon: a lot of different genres have claimed chunks of it. This is just my armchair look at it, but it seems that during the late 90s horror became something of a pejorative term. Horror books were not selling, horror sections in bookstores were shrinking, so authors stopped writing horror and started writing dark urban fantasy.
Dan: this was identical to what they used to write, just had a different label and when on a different shelf in the bookstore.
Howard: Stephen King and Dean Koontz are mainstream. They sell a lot more books.
Brandon: I think Dean Koontz does not call himself a horror, he calls himself suspense. Thrill or suspense? Is there a difference between suspense and horror?
Dan: Yes. The suspense genre is hard to pin down. Most books have an element of suspense in them. Horror usually involves the supernatural.
Brandon: horror is supernatural or exaggerated. Exaggerated threats. Thriller exaggerates suspense, it’s overblown, larger than life. Horror is not just scary, it’s horrifying. It’s the extreme end.
Howard: in a suspense novel, we have a female police officer who is on the trail of the serial killer and she turns out to be his next target. A horror story may have the exact same plot, except halfway through we find out the serial killer is an Elder God.
Dan: with horror you tend to have main characters who are less competent in the area that they need to be. Not a cop.
Howard: I see that in fantasy and science fiction, too. The underqualified adept is thrown in over his head.
Dan: James Bond will never be in horror, but he could be in a thriller.
Howard: James Bond could be in horror. After the first chapter, he’d be dead.
Dan: Stephen King: horror is not spectacle. It is the girl next door, an unknown actress, hiding in a cabin holding a knife that you know she is never going to get to use.
Dan: that’s actually kind of cool. It has a lot of the main elements of horror in it. A character who is not a warrior, who does not know what they are up against, who doesn’t know how to deal with it, and who may not survive to the end.
Dan brings up an excellent thing that I wanted to bring up in this podcast. We want to focus on how to write these aspects. This is a writing podcast. We don’t want to just describe genre. How do you write characters for a horror book? How do you approach it differently than if writing for science fiction? What do you have to do differently?
Howard: look at the difference between Alien and Aliens. Alien is very clearly horror. In Aliens, we start out going in with military guys who look very very competent, but then they are up against far more than we expected. It becomes horror. Their competence was reduced in the face of the trial.
Dan: Stephen King says he likes to take the character that the reader likes the most and put them through the burner. You start by making them like the character. You really have to be able to identify with the characters in horror. Very very closely. Specifically, they have to have faults. Maybe half of your book or slightly less will be about the overt obvious problem — I’m being chased by a monster or a killer or whatever — and the other half is about my wife doesn’t love me anymore, my kids don’t understand me, all of these personal conflicts. You have to have these in any story but it’s especially important in horror. It’s because I as a reader have never been chased by a werewolf so I’m not going to identify with that — it won’t resonate with me. However, my children are drifting away from me, my . . . these other personal relationships resonate.
Brandon: the inner demon versus the outer demons seems to be a huge theme in horror. Destroyed by an external forces that represent internal forces. The character struggles with internal but is ripped apart by the external monster that manifests them.
Dan: it doesn’t have to be a one to one allegory. You don’t have to write a purely representative horror. But the internal conflicts often are what is destroying the character.
This week’s writing excuses is brought to you by… pants. Pants: you put them on your legs. Put them — put them all the way up. Pants: put them back on, please.
Howard: if you try and use third person omniscient, you’ve given it all away.
Dan: you can use limited.
Brandon: I’m a big fan of Lovecraft. And it works because of things we’ve been talking about. He has this intense, deep first person thrown into something they don’t expect, which has a horrifying edge of the supernatural that is so scary and drives an insane. Part of the horror is watching monsters, but part is watching characters you like descend into madness.
Howard: a weakness is that he would tell you how scary it was by using words the most horrifying, undescribable
Brandon: you can’t just imitate him.
Howard: don’t say things like “this was the most horrifying thing she’d ever seen.” Say, “her jaw dropped, and her eyes began to quiver…”
Brandon: concrete details, particularly small concrete details
Dan: and some very non-concrete details if presented properly. When you boil it down, horror is about the unknown, the fear of not knowing what’s going on.
How do you write setting differently for horror?
Dan: this is why so many of them are in cabins. A setting where help is not available, escape is not an option, and you are forced to confront something you don’t know how to deal with.
Howard: holes in the understanding are dark and scary, revealing them can be frightening.
Brandon: in fantasy, the more I reveal, the better the setting, world, and imagery are. The more interesting and capable the characters are. In horror, the more you reveal, the worse it gets. Information makes things worse, it does not make things better.
Dan: you see this in movies, as soon as we get a clear look at the monster, the tension drains out.
Howard: a good way to define the difference between science fiction and fantasy and horror, how early in the show do you get to see the alien or monsters?
Plot — what do you do differently for horror?
Howard: Stephen King quote take the character you like and put them through the burner
Dan: might have been grinder
Howard: any action you take to plot twist — when you make things worse. In a plot for horror, when you make things worse, you also make them terrifying.
Brandon: you want to make things personal. Even to the point of a smaller scale. One protagonist dealing with staying alive.
Closing words on horror?
Dan: go out and read The Rats in the Walls and The Yellow Wallpaper
[That wasn’t a scream, that was a squeak. More like a chair being dragged across the floor.]
Current Mood: terrified
Current Music: The Thunder Rolls, Garth Brooks