I came across this excellent article by best-selling horror author, Shaun Hutson.
Horror Fiction Unearthed
Horror stories are all about scaring people, and good ones will ooze sensations of unease, discomfort, and outright terror from their pages. Horror author Shaun Hutson describes how to makes yours unnerve and unsettle, from those first fingers of fear tickling the back of your neck to whether you should show everything in gory Technicolor or keep the indescribable hiding in the shadows.
This session includes:
Drawing on personal fears for inspiration
The influence of successful horror films
Plotting and characters
Building and maintaining tension
Getting a Reaction
Can you hear scratching at your door while you’re reading this? Nothing too insistent. It might just be a sound you haven’t heard before, a banging in the radiator pipes possibly. A creaky floorboard? That’s the way a lot of horror stories start. Something small and apparently insignificant grows gradually until all Hell is let loose, sometimes quite literally.
Writing horror for me started with a similarly small and apparently insignificant event. Quite simply, I read a horror book that was so badly written that I thought I must be able to do better myself. The only problem is that when people say they’ve read something of mine and felt inspired to start writing I now wonder if it’s for the same reason I started…
Let’s hope your desire to start writing horror comes from what I now see as a vocation in life. That is to say, scaring the living daylights out of people. But also the realization that you can work in a genre like no other from a writer’s point of view. You can do everything within a piece of horror fiction that you can do in any other genre, and much more. The only thing that limits you is the extent of your imagination.
I’m in the business of scaring people. The by-products of my work might be nightmares (which are the ultimate accolade in this genre), they might be vomiting (I would say I’m only kidding but someone wrote to tell me a scene one of my books inspired this rather more than usually visceral reaction), or they might be outrage at some supposedly taboo subject that I’ve dared to write about but, whatever the case, the main thing is to get a reaction. Make them love you or make them hate you but don’t allow them to be undecided. To my mind, the worst thing a writer can be confronted with is indifference.
So, how the hell, if you’ll excuse the pun, do we go about getting that reaction?
A question I’ve been asked more than any other over the years (apart from, “Why don’t you get a proper job?”) is, “Why do people read horror?” The answer is that people genuinely enjoy being scared, as long as it’s from the safety of their armchair or cinema seat. You only have to look at some of the biggest grossing books or films of the last thirty years to see that.
Reading or watching good horror is almost like a muscular exercise. You’re tense and wound up while you’re reading then when the book ends, you relax, put it down and forget about it. Or, if it’s done its job, you run screaming from the room, and barricade yourself in the nearest cupboard.
Another reason, but one people are a little more loathe to admit to, is the fact that we all have a dark side to our natures and horror allows us to experience this dark side, vicariously, through the actions of the characters. You can indulge your deepest darkest fears, neuroses and thoughts then put the book aside having experienced something close to a kind of cleansing. Writing horror over the years has saved me a fortune in therapy because I’ve simply put all the worst thoughts I’ve had into books and short stories and cleared them out of my mind.
And that’s my first piece of advice to all of you. Write about something close to your heart, something you feel strongly about, something that scares you. Exorcise your demons on the page. The chances are, when someone reads your outpourings, they’ll share some of those fears and feelings you’ve expressed.
Fear on Film
Films such as The Exorcist, Jaws (both based on a massive bestsellers), Alien and, more recently, The Blair Witch Project are perfect examples of the cathartic process to exorcise deep-rooted fears. The reason these pieces of work were so successful is because they tapped into what psychiatrists would call primal fears, and at the heart of each is a common fear shared by millions of people.
The Exorcist was basically about the disintegration of a family (embodied as it might have been by a possessed teenage girl). The horror came not just from the special effects (although they probably helped), but from a loss of control – in the possessed girls case, the loss of control of her own body.
Jaws presented us with a confrontation between man and the forces of nature but that conflict took place in an environment completely alien to us, namely the sea. The monster (the shark) was in its element, but the three men hunting it dared to enter its lair. They were at the mercy not only of the creature itself, but also of the habitat in which it dwelled.
Alien used the invasion of the body itself as the first horror. The thought of something malevolent growing inside your own body then being birthed in that magnificent “chestburster” scene echoes deep-rooted fears about pregnancy and childbirth.
The primal horror of The Blair Witch Project was even more simple – it was about getting lost. Three youngsters lost in some woods are terrorised by something they never see, but the true horror is that they are helpless, robbed of control and without the means to escape.
What I’ve always tried to do (and you might bear this in mind when you’re writing your own stuff) is to find what I’d call a ‘normal’ setting, a menace that springs from something we see on a daily basis. For instance, I have no doubt that the success of my novel Slugs was based on the fact that people see these creatures in their gardens every day and find them, on the whole, pretty revolting. When these same slugs became a threat, it amplified that dislike into real fear.
So try the “what if…?” approach to horror writing. Find something grounded in everyday life, use that as the basis for what you’re writing, and push that idea as far as it will possibly go. Nearly everything I’ve written has had some basis in real-life events, including a disease transmitted by eating red meat (Erebus), the IRA (Renegades and White Ghost), and suicide bombers on the loose in London (Necessary Evil). The elements that make your story scary will all come from that central idea and how you build around it.
Digging Up Plots
Another tip. Don’t try emulating your favourite authors. There’s nothing wrong with admiring a particular writer but remember, this is your work. I read a lot when I was younger but my influences were, and still are, cinematic so books don’t have to be your sole guide in learning how to construct stories. Films do it more directly and more succinctly (assuming they’re any good). They also teach you how to get character across using dialogue and actions rather than boring everyone stupid for twelve pages describing someone’s upbringing and views on life. Given that character might become mincemeat after a few pages, it makes sense.
This is very much a personal preference, but I always work from a very detailed synopsis and chapter by chapter notes. I think that when you’re working on a book that needs to be as tightly plotted as horror does, my view is that it’s best to know what’s going to happen right from beginning to end. It also avoids that old writing cliche of your characters taking on a life of their own. You don’t want them taking on any other life than the one you’ve given them for the duration of the book, and the James Joyce “stream of consciousness” style writing just doesn’t work in horror (not for me anyway). You finish up with loose ends and unresolved bits of plot and trust me, you don’t want that.
However, don’t worry that this kind of rigidly worked plot will trouble you if you happen to be struck by divine inspiration midway through the story or book. Horror can be episodic in its structure too (as long as all the little bits of the puzzle come together by the end) so, if you have a flash of genius you hadn’t planned then write it anyway. If it fits, that’s great. If not, discard it and use it in something else. But, my tip would be to work out everything at synopsis stage, and that includes your characters.
Write out a cast list and include their ages, hair colour, clothes, what car they drive. All this detail will help you keep in control of them. After all, you created them. Most horror is plot driven in as much as the story is more important than all but the two or three central characters. However, you don’t want your book or story peopled by what I refer to as “cannon fodder”. The reader cares more when something nasty happens to a character they like.
Short and Scary
Use short sentences, short paragraphs and short chapters. Most people read in bed, on trains, on the bus. Places like that. If your chapters are short then people will tend to think “I’ll just read the next one,” then, on finding that too is short, the next one. So on and so on until they find, to their surprise, they’ve finished the book and if you finish a book quickly, you tend to think it’s good (even if it isn’t…). That’s my biggest trick. It also helps to keep your dialogue tight and as direct as possible.
If possible, leave every chapter with something approaching a cliff-hanger ending, something that makes the reader want to continue. Even if it’s only a simple line like, “And then the phone rang.” Or, “He didn’t realize someone was watching him.” You get the drift. Using short chapters and short punchy sentences creates and maintains tension.
Also, if you start with slightly longer chapters then cut them in length as you get near to the end of the book. This also helps because it gives the impression of the writing speeding up. Film editors use this technique. Cuts come much quicker towards the end of horror films and thrillers to hurry the viewer along and give that feeling of urgency.
Even if you’re working on a “slow-burner” (a book which contains a gradual build up to a shattering climax) you’re still going to need the odd fright along the way. Otherwise the reader will have lost interest and put the book down, nodded off or died before your brilliant final revelation hits them. Again, use the short chapter technique to maintain interest until all is revealed at the end.
Explicit or Unseen?
What seems to divide people most when it comes to horror is the “graphic or suggested” question. Do you describe the full horror of a death or a monster or do you hint at it. Well, to be honest, there are arguments for both but there is also the possibility that most good horror is a mixture of the two. Getting back to my examples of earlier. The Exorcist builds slowly, as does Alien, but eventually something has to be shown.
There is a school of thought that says if there’s a scene with someone trapped in a room with an unseen menace scratching at the door trying to get in, then it’s probably best not to show what’s on the other side of that door. The reason for this is that someone, somewhere is going to be disappointed when you finally reveal it. The people who thought the creature was ten feet tall will be disappointed if it’s only eight feet tall. Those who thought it was a psychopathic escaped lunatic will be disappointed when it’s only revealed to be a ghost and others who expected a misshapen alien will be annoyed when it’s only the postman…
This kind of expectation can also work to your advantage when you’re writing just such a scene. Imagine what the readers think will be on the other side of the door, then reveal something they would never have expected. However, don’t suddenly introduce a character into the narrative who’s never previously been seen just to create a surprise, because that’s a cop out.
What you can do is to create a series of small events that seem as if they’re about to reveal something devastating, but in fact they only prolong the suspense. For instance, a threat (be it maniac, monster or vampire) is loose in a house, unbeknownst to the main character. First, they hear creaky boards, then a cat knocks over a glass in another room. It builds the tension slowly. Then, finally, when you think the screw can’t be turned any further, you reveal the real menace.
Produce as many of these “false shocks” as you like until you finally reveal what’s actually responsible for the noises. So, in our story, someone’s trapped in a small room. The windows are sealed shut, there’s no way in or out other than that single door that’s being scratched or banged on by whatever is out in the corridor beyond. Now, if your story has been about a murderer with a claw hammer chasing people around a deserted hospital, then the chances are it’ll be him banging at that door.
However, even if that is what your story’s about, you can still twist things. What if the central character is trapped inside that room, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the killer gets inside. So, they’re looking around for something to defend themselves with. Do they actually manage to find anything to fight back with or are they faced with the prospect of battling a frenzied killer with their bare hands? Perhaps they find an old rusted piece of metal. The banging on the door continues. What’s waiting on the other side? Does the central character go out to see or wait for the psycho to come crashing in? That’s how to build tension. What happens if the banging stops?
There are so many different ways you can go from just that one simple location. One room. One character. One menace on the other side of the door. Just a thought though – what if the banging isn’t the killer? What if it’s a lone policeman arriving in the nick of time? Does the central character still come out swinging and possibly kill an innocent person? Or, do we now have two instead of just one person in danger from this maniac? Your choices are endless and it’s horror so you can take it whichever way you want to.
Is Anything Taboo?
If the story scares you, then you’ll know it works on others. In my novel Relics, there’s a scene where a guy is chased through his house by some unspeakable creature. He flees up the stairs into his bedroom with the beast at his heels. I made the mistake of walking this scene through before writing it, imagining myself in the characters position. I was terrified but it worked on the printed page.
But as a rule, don’t ever worry about going too far with graphic descriptions of violence or gore. After all, we’re working in the most extreme of genres here. As I said earlier, there should be no limits to where you want to go with your horror writing. Explore all those darker thoughts in your writing. Shock, terrify, disgust. It’s allowed in this kind of writing. However, extreme violence and gore only works if it’s within the context of your story. Don’t stick a gruesome scene in just for the sake of it. It will stick out like a sore thumb.
When you get to that horrific death scene, it’s down to you how far you go with it. Do you want to describe the needle going into the eye, or do you want to cut the description short before the steel touches the glistening orb? (Cue maniacal laughter…) The choice is yours and it comes back to what I was talking about earlier regarding what you do or don’t reveal.
Having said that, there are still a few taboos which will alienate some readers and these need some careful thought before you decide to use them. Violence against animals, for instance, is usually frowned on. Again in Relics, several people are slaughtered in unspeakable ways and no one complained, but I had loads of mail complaining about some dog-fighting scenes. Same with my novel Compulsion, in which a scene involving someone taking pot-shots at a cat with an air rifle caused an uproar from some readers.
The subject matter for your story or novel is of course, purely your choice. Make no mistake though, there is nothing original – it’s just a matter of coming at something from a different angle. This could include up-dating horror classics like Dracula, Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All have been tried in print and on film. You could do Dracula from the point of view of one of his brides, the Frankenstein story from the hunchbacked assistant’s point of view, or Jekyll and Hyde from the point of view of Mr Hyde’s barber (just kidding). If you’ve got an angle, give it a go.
Fear is with us everyday of our lives. We confront it, we fight it and some of us write about it. For those of you who’ve never tried, I recommend it. It frees you. It lets you go places you’ve never been before, places you might not want to go but places you find you’re drawn to. It gets you like that. Go on, give it a try. Scare the hell out of someone and see how good it feels. But, before you start writing, lock the doors and just check that the scraping and tapping at the window is really just a tree branch…
There are several books and films which are classics within the genre and which I consider them all to have the classic elements of what I’ve talked about in this article. I would recommend that anyone wanting to write horror seek out any or all of these.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (and the sequel, Legion)
The Keep by F Paul Wilson
The Shining by Stephen King
Headhunter by Michael Slade
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Pickman’s Model by H P Lovecraft (and any other of his short stories)
Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
The Graveyard Rats, a short story by Henry Kuttner
The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, a short story by M R James
and of course, anything by Shaun Hutson (ahem…)
The Exorcist, dir. William Freidkin (1973)
The Exorcist III, dir. William Peter Blatty (1990)
Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg (1975)
Alien, dir. Ridley Scott (1979)
The Blair Witch Project, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (1999)
Se7en, dir. David Fincher (1995)
The Omega Man, dir. Boris Sagal (1971)
Halloween, dir. John Carpenter (1978)
Straw Dogs, dir. Sam Peckinpah (1971)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, dir. Sam Peckinpah (1974)
Marathon Man, dir. John Schlesinger (1976)
Audition, dir. Takashi Miike (2000)
The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961)