Writing Excuses 11.18: Elemental Horror
Key Points: What is horror? Visceral fear. Your reaction to something bad that has already happened, the sense of dread that your world has changed for the worse and you have to deal with it. The protagonist did something to catalyze it. The reader has to worry that the character is done for, is going to suffer horribly even if they make it through. Horror is a strong metabolic reaction, an invocation of the fight-or-flight reaction. Horror is not about the monster or the scare, it’s about the character’s reaction to it and what it turns them into. Add in awareness of what is happening, too. And an unhealthy dash of powerlessness, loss of control. What’s with the “We won” followed by a sudden reversal that so many horror stories have? In horror, no matter how much they succeed, they are still going to fail. How do you write a horror story? Make the protagonist competent, but the things they can do don’t help in this situation. Think of the nightmare where you can’t run fast enough to escape, because the alligator can fly! How do you make the reader believe for a while that it might be okay? Give them moments of light, so they can understand how bad things turn out. Remember that the worst possible outcome may not be death. Keep the audience in suspense about what the real horror is. How do you build or conceive a new horror story? Start with the character, and make us want them to be okay. Start with the fear, usually a primal one. Start with the reveal of the horrific disaster, then add layers of obscuring anxiety.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 18.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Elemental Horror.
[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] And I think there’s somebody else in the room with us.
[Brandon] Yes. His name is Steve Diamond and he’s a vengeful spirit come to haunt us.
[Howard] Well, now that we can see the monster, he’s not scary anymore.
[Brandon] Say hi, Steve.
[Steve] How’s it going, guys?
[Brandon] Steve is our good friend, longtime friend. He is a writer and a blogger and a book reviewer.
[Howard] And a government subcontractor.
[Dan] He appears in all of my books and I think most of Brandon’s.
[Brandon] Yes. He has the distinction of having organized my biggest signing until the Wheel of Time…
[Steve] Until that whole Wheel of Time thing?
[Brandon] Yeah, and tell that whole Wheel of Time thing. He was a bookstore employee who I had the weird experience of walking in and he knew who I was and had read my book. That was unique in my experiences during that time. Steve is now an author and he has consented to join us to talk about horror. He’s known us long enough that he knows about horror.
[Steve] Yes. Mostly Dan.
[Brandon] So, Steve, what’s your blog? What’s your website?
[Steve] So it’s Elitist Book Reviews.
[Dan] Most [garbled] nominated.
[Steve] Nominated for the Hugo a few times. I’ve reviewed all of you, I think. In fact, I remember reviewing Mary, like right at the very beginning with your short story collection.
[Mary] You were one of the very first people who said nice things. It was…
[Steve] Yes. So yeah, I have… We’ve been around since I think 2009. Yeah, it’s been a long road. It’s good. Met a ton of great people.
[Brandon] You have a book, but we’re going to pitch that a little bit later during our book of the week.
[Steve] All right.
[Brandon] Let’s dive into horror. This is a genre that is close to our hearts, much like the knives that Dan spears us with on occasion. What is horror?
[Mary] One of the things for me… I don’t write horror very often. When I was learning to, one of the… I could write something that was… Put my characters in danger. I could write something where you were a little afraid. But the difference for me… The thing that Jason Sizemore at Apex said was that horror is visceral fear.
[Brandon] Visceral fear? How is that different from just a thriller? The fear that I’m going to get… I’m being chased by guys, they’re going to shoot me?
[Dan] My favorite definition actually comes from Anne Radcliffe who was writing kind of old Gothic horror around the same time as Jane Austen. She said that… And I’m going to totally butcher this, so this is not a quote, this is me paraphrasing my memory of what she said… That’s something that is scary is something that hasn’t happened yet. You’re afraid that a bad guy will attack you. You’re afraid that something will fall apart. You’re afraid that something bad is going to happen. Horror is your reaction to something bad that’s already happened. It’s a sense of dread that your world has changed for the worse irrevocably and now you have to deal with it.
[Mary] The other aspect of horror that is very key is that the protagonist has actually done something to kick it off. There is a catalyst moment. So it’s not just…
[Brandon] Okay. Even if it’s something as simple as I’ve moved into the wrong house.
[Mary] Yeah. That there was actually a way to avoid it.
[Steve] The thing with horror is that it isn’t enough that the book is quote unquote scary. It is… What has to happen is the reader, while reading this, legitimately worries that that character is done for. The sense that even should the character miraculously make it through whatever this horrible situation is, it’s still bad. The consequences are horrible for them. So it’s this attitude of terror and fear, like you guys have been saying. It’s why I love it so much, this actual raising the stakes and making the characters within the book worried about everything. Worried about that unknown.
[Howard] I think it was Michael Collings, in one of our live episodes from LTUE several years back, who said that horror and erotica and humor are the genres that seek to elicit a strong metabolic reaction. You’re reading a horror story and your heart begins to race. You are feeling the fight-or-flight… That’s the reason I hate it. Because I don’t love feeling that way. Okay? But I love writing it, because I get this chill and this thrill that I am doing that to someone else.
[Howard] I know that sounds awful. Now if I was a character in a horror story, the reader would be horrified at what I am becoming. Not the bad things that are happening to me, but the fact that I’ve embraced this dark magic and have begun writing stories that are almost as terrifying as Dan’s or Steve’s.
[Steve] Well, that’s what I love about horror also, is that it isn’t just… Horror is often associated with monsters or with creatures of various incarnations. The interesting thing about that is that it isn’t just about the monster. It isn’t just about the scare. It’s about the person, the character’s reaction to it and what it is turning them into, like you just said, Howard. They’re very much a mirror to what we don’t want to be. Or, depending on the viewpoint that you’re writing from, what the person wants to be. Which is scarier?
[Mary] I think that there’s also an aspect of awareness in horror, that you kind of… The character is aware of what is happening to them?
[Brandon] That something terrible is going on.
[Mary] That they are living in dread.
[Steve] That runaway train that… Oh, no. This is happening, this is happening. What can I do? Maybe nothing.
[Mary] There’s also a loss of control.
[Brandon] I was going to ask about that. See, I haven’t ever written true horror. Closest I got was in a short story once, so I’m going to ask a lot of questions. That powerlessness, that loss of control. Why is that aspect of horror? Is that necessary as part of this, or is that just part… An aspect of it?
[Dan] I think it is an important part. I don’t know if it’s necessary. But it’s a big huge deal. Compare this to, for example, adventure that we talked about last month. One of the things with adventure is “Oh, no, something’s going to happen.” But the fun part is seeing how we get out of it. We have this sense that no matter how bad it gets, Indiana Jones is still going to manage to find some loophole and escape. Whereas with horror, we know that that sense of control is gone. He’s not in control of the situation, and in very bad ways. That something is going to go wrong, and we’re just kind of waiting for the car to hit the pole.
[Brandon] Okay. Tell me this. This may be a random aside, but I’ve noticed a lot of horror stories have a moment of “Okay, we got through it.” And then “Nope!” The story ends with the “Oh, by the way, no you didn’t.” This like stinger on the end that kind of betrays the normal convention of trouble, problem, we work on it, we succeed or fail, end. It’s trouble, problem, we work on it, we succeed? Nope, you failed.
[Howard] It’s a recasting of surprising and inevitable. If you do it correctly, the point at which they are victorious is surprising, because I’m reading a horror story. Wow, that turned out pretty well for them. Yet, from what we’ve seen, yes, that seems inevitable. Then that twist at the end, where you cast everything in a new light and you realize, “Oh. Not only were they not okay, everything that they did in order to make things okay, made things unimaginably worse.” Selling that is brilliant. I’ve never pulled it off. But when I read it, it’s, well, it’s horrifying and it’s wonderful.
[Mary] I think one of the reasons that that element exists is because again, when we talk about what this is doing, what this element is doing to hack our brain, we sign up to read horror because we want that visceral metabolic reaction. If you bring it to a resolution, where there’s a happy ending, you have taken that metabolic reaction away from the reader. Whereas if you give that tiny little bit of a twist, that’s something that they can carry with them into their… Outside of the book.
[Steve] It’s almost a bait-and-switch if you do that, right? You’re saying, “Oh, this is…” If it becomes a super happy fluffy ending, suddenly it’s not the same book. I know Dan and I have talked about this before, that one of the main differences… And this is a huge generalization, so I apologize. Between say urban fantasy and horror, is in urban fantasy, no matter how bad they screw up, you know they’re pretty much going to succeed in the end. Where in horror, it’s typically the reverse, right? No matter how good they do, no matter how much they succeed, they’re still going to fail.
[Brandon] Right. Urban fantasy is about we’re going to kill the monsters. Yeah, there are monsters, yeah they’re scary, and we’re going to kill them. Whereas horror is yeah, there are monsters…
[Steve] We might kill them.
[Brandon] We might kill them, but if we do…
[Brandon] We will be horribly ruined. Like John Cleaver. Right? This is a perfect example. John Cleaver does not escape those books. It’s almost worse than if he had been killed.
[Dan] I love to describe my job as thinking of new ways to make his life worse. Because that’s what the books are about. Horrible things that happen to him.
[Brandon] We need to stop for our book of the week, which is a very important book of the week. Because our book of the week is Residue. Steve, will you tell us just a little bit about the book?
[Steve] Okay. Residue is about a kid named Jack Bishop who can see the psychic residue left behind by monsters and murder victims. He uses that to track down a monster that’s been let loose in his town. It’s a genetically modified monster. The person… The pro who tells him that all of this stuff is real is a girl named Alex Courtney. She can read minds, and she’s a complete… Just a complete tough person. It was important for me to have her be the pro and him be the new guy.
[Brandon] So how did you get from… When I first met you, writing fantasy, to writing this type of s… Horror, true horror, like urban horror story?
[Steve] You know, it’s…
[Howard] It’s an antihero arc.
[Steve] No, I think it just came from the starting to read more horror novels and stories. Then finding so much in there that I loved. The ideas, the themes… The fact that, and I think we’ll talk about this later, that you can merge horror with anything you want, and make it its own story. My story is a horror story, but it’s also a thriller. It’s also… There’s also science-fiction in it. There’s also some comedy and romance in it. Horror just… I don’t know, it just jelled with my dark, dark soul, I guess.
[Brandon] Well, Steve’s book is on Audible. You can… It’s read by David Stifel…
[Steve] I think that’s how it’s pronounced.
[Brandon] You can start a 30-day trial at Audible, download Residue by Steve Diamond for free. Just go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse and you can support us and support Steve, our good friend and an excellent writer.
[Steve] Thank you.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about, now, how we write a horror story. When you’re going to sit down and say I want to write a story that is primarily horror, that’s my genre. How do you go about it, what things are you thinking of, how do you construct it?
[Howard] The best piece of advice I got on this, I got from Mary. So I should probably let Mary give it to you.
[Howard] Okay, it’s…
[Mary] I’m like, “What did I tell you?”
[Howard] What you told me was don’t make the protagonist incompetent. Make the protagonist supremely competent, but the things that she can do will not help her in this story. I got chills when you said that because I… Because the story unfolded in front of me and I suddenly saw, “Oh. I get to have the action movie moments where the character is awesome, and at the end of the awesome, we just have more disaster.” Because no matter how good you are at this, it’s the nightmare where you can’t run fast enough to get away from the alligator, even though you are… You guys have all had nightmares about alligators, right?
[Howard] I grew up in Florida, but I assume this is universal.
[Steve] [inaudible] We have so many.
[Howard] You can’t run fast enough. You’re just not good enough to solve this problem. But recast in the way Mary instructed me, is you are definitely awesome enough to run fast, but the alligator is flying. Or it’s nanoparticles in the air. It doesn’t matter how fast you can run.
[Dan] In many ways, that heightens the horror element. Because then it’s not just a nobody who can’t do anything who’s being menaced, because of course that person’s going to get beaten by the alligator. But it’s somebody who’s really competent and really amazing and still can’t get away from the alligator. That’s why the Aliens movie… That’s one of the reasons the Aliens movies are so effective. Because the first one, these are not random horny teenagers on that spaceship. They are middle-aged, competent professionals who know what they’re doing, and they’ve been doing it for decades, and they still get eaten. The second one, they’re Marines, armed to the teeth, and they still get eaten.
[Brandon] So let me ask you this. This is maybe another tangent. Something I’m really curious about… The cool thing about horror as you guys are describing it to me is, when I write a book, epic fantasy or something, I have to suspend the reader’s disbelief in an interesting way. Number one, I have to make it real to them, which we all have to do, and I have to make it seem like the characters are really in danger, because most stories in my genre, people are successful. You flip that on its head. How do you suspend the disbelief that someone picks it up and says… How do you make them believe for a little while that it might be okay?
[Brandon] Does that make sense? Like that’s… You have to make them…
[Howard] You let good things happen.
[Steve] So, one of my favorite authors is Joe Lansdale. So he writes all over the place. He’s known for horror and westerns, primarily. But one of the things he always… He’s told me frequently is that for any horror to be successful, there has to be moments of light in it. Those moments of light, what they do is they… Like, you can’t understand how bad something is without understanding how good it can be conversely. The reverse is also true. So you have to have those moments of… Like Howard said, where things go okay for them, things are right. All it is is… It’s just… The… Whether it’s elder gods or monsters or an evil corporation or whatever, it’s just the calm before the real storm hits them. It makes it more real.
[Mary] I think the other aspect of that is that when you’re looking at these moments of light, it’s easy to say well… What… In fantasy, the thing you… The suspension you’re… Is that the character is going to get killed off. We all know that the character is…
[Brandon] In most cases. Once in a while, they will… But when you’ve got…
[Mary] Unless you’re George RR. R. Martin.
[Brandon] You’ve got a 14 book series about this character. It’s already out. You’re reading. You know that character is on the cover of book 13. So…
[Mary] So they’re going to live. But the thing with horror is… That… Don’t think that the worst possible outcome is death.
[Steve] It rarely ever is.
[Mary] So it’s not that are they going to be successful. But it’s what kind of terrible ending are we coming to? That’s the thing that you surprise people with. It’s like you make them think, “Oh, the character is going to… His girlfriend is going to be eaten by a monster.” But it turns out that that’s not the case. That his manhood is removed or something.
[Dan] One of the ways… Okay. That came out of nowhere. I don’t know if I have a follow-up to that, specifically, but…
[Dan] One of my favorite horror stories is Midnight Meat Train by Clive Barker.
[Mary] Really. Midnight Meat Train? I see your transition.
[Dan] Okay! What he’s doing, and the principle that I want to talk about here, is how do you make the audience think that everything is going to be okay is that they don’t necessarily know what the true nature of the horror is. Stephen King does this a lot. The Mist is a great example. Midnight Meat Train is about a journalist who’s investigating a serial killer who is lurking in a subway system. The movie, right up until the end, is a series of successes. He investigates, he tracks down who this guy is, he finds him, he figures out how to stop him, and then he does it. Then his dying words, of the serial killer, are, “I’ve been feeding the monsters who live under the city. Now that I’m dead, you have to, or they’re going to wake up and kill way more people than I ever did.” It’s this absolutely gut wrenching reversal, when you realize, “Oh. I thought he was the bad guy. There’s a way worse bad guy, but now the story is over and everything has gone to hell.”
[Brandon] That is really cool. We don’t have much time left, but I really wanted to get into, Dan, you telling us how you conceive a new horror story. Like, what goes into you building that story?
[Dan] Okay. This is a big question.
[Brandon] Yeah, I know.
[Dan] The first one… I’m going to transition into that question by talking about another thing. The way that you… The other way that you convince the audience that everything is going to be okay is that you make them want everything to be okay. The way you do that… Again, Stephen King’s a perfect example of this. 80% of his books are here’s a guy and all of his life and his troubles at work and his troubles with his wife and his cool new kids that he has. You get to know him and you get to love him and you get to really really really want his life to work out.
[Brandon] Do you start with a character a lot of times with these?
[Dan] I think for me, horror has to start with either the character or the monster.
[Steve] That’s how it is for me.
[Mary] I start with the fear.
[Brandon] What they’re going to be afraid of?
[Mary] Yeah, and usually it’s specifically like, “What are the things I am afraid of?” I usually start with primal things. Like…
[Steve] That’s the way to go.
[Mary] Fear of the dark. Fear of…
[Steve] Confinement. And alone…
[Howard] I start with the reveal of whatever this horrific disaster thing is. Then I start putting layers of obscuring anxiety over it. What’s a thing that I’m afraid of that would hide that? What’s a thing that I’m afraid of that might hide that? I sort of… I backtrack the character’s journey so that they are having an anxiety attack on their way to insanity.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. But we will come back to this in a couple of weeks and dig into it a little bit further. Let’s stop and give everyone some homework. Dan is going to give us our homework.
[Dan] Yes. We’re going to follow on this principle that Steve was talking about, that in horror, even a victory will feel like a defeat. We want you to take one of your favorite stories, a movie, a book, or whatever, that is not horror. Then, rewrite the ending. Write a new alternate ending in which it is horror, and everything goes horribly wrong, and they’re… They snatch failure from the jaws of victory.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you, again, to Steve Diamond. You are all out of excuses. Now go write.