On October 29, 2022, Kasie and Rex revisited one of their favorite topics: horror, or how to write scary stories. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
Macabre, creepy, scary, horrifying
- Flash at the Bar
- Levels of fright
- Required elements in scary stories
- How to build tension / creep people out
So Wednesday was fun. Our friend Raegan Teller invited us to read at another Flash at the Bar event. It was meant to be a Halloween-themed event. Were any of the stories really scary? Creepy? Or just macabre?
Stephen King claims there are three levels: Gross-out, Horror, and Terror. Let’s unpack that.
- Gross-out: the “ew” reaction – a severed head falling down the stairs, blood, gore
- Horror: graphic portrayal of the unbelievable, something that strikes genuine fear – a child’s toy becomes a murderer, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around
- Terror: where the induction of fear is fully caused by the imagination itself; the author suggests something and the reader fills in the blanks – the lights go out and you feel something behind you, its breath on your neck, its stink in your nose, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.
This Neil Chase blog suggests five elements of horror:
And goes on to offer these 9 tips:
- Create relatable horror-genre characters – true of every genre, but in horror the characters should be cut off from the world in some way (mentally, physically); in Scream, Sydney is awkward because her mom was murdered and the whole town knows it, in Stranger Things, Will Byers isn’t quite ready for girls and other high-school-level pursuits.
- Find out what scares others – the people around you are good source material; what creeps them out? What makes them scared?
- Watch the news – it’s full of horrifying things, circumstances people can’t escape, terrible acts of inhumanity
- Try using family in some way – most people relate to family and can understand the inherent dynamics there; People are protective of family, so imagine one in danger – how do the characters react?
- Use fear to drive their choices – loss of a job, income, or fear of bullies or crime, these simple situations can turn horrific if the character makes terrible choices in response to them
- Use the fear of impending doom – superstition, bad prophecies, a sense that things just aren’t going to work out can drive people to do irrational things to protect themselves, their family, or their property; let the character’s imagination go to the worst possible outcome, always.
- Use darkness – it’s just the absence of light, but darkness has at its core the uncertainty of what lurks within, what threatens us, what could overcome or overtake us. It’s a primal fear, something most of us never truly outgrow.
- Use the sense of being “out of control.” – things have to happen that the character cannot prevent, we have access to technology and we know so much, and yet there are ways to isolate your character, keep them helpless, give them some kind of disadvantage that makes the circumstances worse; characters need to have agency, so their choices should drive the plot, but the choice between two bad options is also out of control.
- Don’t be afraid to add depth – it’s not just genre fiction full of jump scares and gore, horror can be disturbing, chilling, or twisted and live in your imagination like a kind of seed, never sure how it’ll root and sprout.
This blog takes on the “six elements of horror” with this list:
- The familiar made strange – The Metamorphosis by Kafka; something or someone close to the reader starts to act, look, or speak strangely
- Tapping into the reader’s darkest fears – what are you afraid of? What do you tell people you’re afraid of? What are you actually afraid of? A woman’s child starts murdering people, a kid’s mother is actually a clone
- Verisimilitude – not that everything has to be realistic, but that the rules of the magic in the world make sense (and we know what they are)
- Claustrophobia – confine the characters to a single space, a tight occupancy, and watch them write; Jaws “I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
- Paranoia – the characters are suspicious of one another (like a murder mystery) and don’t know who to trust; this works well in Stranger Things as Elle is the newcomer and she’s weird and they’re alternatively frightened of her and fascinated by her, they feel a sense she needs them but she might be a danger to them
- Violence – the threat thereof or the actual mechanics of the scene; violence can be unexpected or anticipated, it can be unusual and extreme or unfulfilling and awkward.
This blog gives 10 elements of horror but it’s focused on films, so some of them (like music) may not apply. Here are a few we haven’t talked about yet:
- A memorable but frightening menace – Freddy, Jason, scarecrows, a shark
- Clear rules to live by – the breaking of these or the upholding of these creates tension
- Plenty of characters who can disappear – a few characters and you won’t be able to murder them off, but have enough people involved to demonstrate a genocide?
- Backstory that’s key to the monster’s purpose – I love a good horror origin story; what made the monster this way?
Wondering how to do it? Don’t worry, there’s a blog for that, too. This Writers Write blog gives us a list of eight steps to take:
- Take the time to let the reader get to know your characters – is this a page count? A portion of the book? How is the ‘time’ accomplished here?
- Establish the familiar, the comfortable – what is life usually like? The contrast between once-the-monster-arrives and before matters
- Use foreshadowing, but don’t be cliche – the tingle down the spine, the sense of foreboding, the prophecy, the darkening skies, all ways to introduce uncertainty and fear, but also cheap and easy
- Pacing – draw out the suspense with longer, deeper narrative as you’re building toward something; then shorter, punchier, more dramatic sentences to hammer home the action or the violence
- Tap their imagination – let them fill in the blanks, they will probably come up with something 10 times more scary than you could
- Suffocate them with tight spaces – if the character is trapped, they’ll be that much more likely to make back choices.
- Think like a child – what scared you then scares people now
- Disorient reality – what characters think is happening can be a completely different thing than what is actually happening; this is where A Nightmare on Elm Street gets its fear – Nancy’s sleep-deprived psychosis is as terrifying as the demon Freddy himself
Bonus: here’s a prezi on literary devices used in horror. They include:
- Dash or ellipses to leave the rest for the reader to imagine
- Exclamation marks, italics for emphasis
- The audience knows something the characters don’t
- Biased POV
- Figurative language