I write speculative fiction, where most of my focus is on science fiction with a dabble of horror. However, my roots were in fantasy, partly because when I first started writing in middle school I simply did not have the scientific foundation to write science fiction well, but that didn’t stop me. I tossed aliens into my stories, clones, and mind controlling gadgetry, all of which lived alongside feats that would only work if magic existed. I had dragons and demons and monsters. This need to understand science better to more effectively write science fiction played a large role in me earning the physics degree I have today.
Now I look back at those tales and recognize them for what they were: my practice sessions and my imagination garden. There I planted the seeds of my future fiction, and over the years I cultivated my imagination garden, helping it become more refined and less chaotic. I learned how to write a story arc. How to craft a consistent and coherent plot, and most of all, I learned how to build a science fiction world. This new series, that I’m starting with this post, will focus on various aspects of speculative fiction and will offer myself and my readers a challenge for their writing. It’ll help me plant more seeds in my imagination garden and hopefully expand my capabilities as a writer.
I’m still not perfect at writing speculative fiction, but no one ever is. We simply keep trying and keep writing the best we can. It’s always good to push our boundaries to the limits because the challenges are what helps us to grow the most. This is why I’ve tried to start learning how to write horror. So this first post in my “Let us go write!” series will focus on the horror story.
In the Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror edited by Laurie Lamson, several articles discuss horror directly. Glenn Benest, a horror screenwriter and producer, writes:
Unlike other works of fiction or film, the protagonist in this genre does not need to go through a character arc.
He goes on to explain how horror’s main focus is not necessarily on the protagonist character.
… we must realize that the real star in the horror genre is not the hero but the source of the horror itself. Whether it’s a haunted hotel in The Shining or the great white shark in Jaws, the crucial thing that makes a horror project really work is that which scares us.
This isn’t to say strong characters shouldn’t exist in horror pieces, but it is important to take notice that the focus isn’t really on the characters. They are the vehicle that brings the reader to the confrontation with the terrible evil; this means that there is something even more important that the protagonist character when it comes to writing good horror fiction. Another point the essayist makes is that often the audience for horror pays money to be scared silly, and so expect to be scared silly. It’s not the nuances of the characters that impress them, but more how well they are scared and how much of a lasting impact that has on them. Understanding this aspect of the horror audience can aid a writer in getting their story sold.
When I think back on my own experiences with horror, I notice that the pieces that stood out to me the most were indeed dependent upon the source of the horror. I don’t remember the characters as much, nor was their character arcs that important. What made the piece good was the source of the fear. For example, in the Alien Franchise, the aliens had a very lasting impact on my psyche. Yes, Ripley has become an iconic character, but examine her storyline. She is shown from the beginning of the film to be a strong-willed and courageous woman. This doesn’t change at all during the course of the movies. She remains strong and courageous, but what changes is that she confronts the terrifying aliens and finds a way to survive. Her confrontation is what made the imprint in my mind, and has made those movies some of my ultimate favorites in the genre. It’s that confrontation that made the movie, not necessarily her story arc (or lack thereof).
So when I write horror, I need to be cognizant of this factor. The horror that is confronted is the focus of the piece, and the characters are there to help force the confrontation. I need to bring out that confrontation, really examine ways to showcase the horror and the scare factor, but to do so in creative ways. I can’t use just one method of scaring a person, but instead, I need to utilize a whole tool belt of scare methods. If I use just one method, I risk losing the element of surprise and the piece becoming lackluster and boring. Surprise can play a large role in pulling off horror well. One way to utilize different methods is to cross-cut scenes with another line of action to build the suspense. Or the writer can utilize a fake-scare, where it seems like something terrifying will happen, but it turns out to be mundane, and then start the real terror directly afterward. Another way to add variety and keep the reader on their toes is to build the suspense slowly by adding creepier and creepier situations, and then add an unexpected scare. Alien was excellent in this regard, as the creepiness of the discovery started slow, and then the alien bursting from the guy’s chest was an unexpected terror.
If a writer is having trouble finding scenarios that could be scary, examine what scares you. What causes you to jump in fear at night? What sort of dream causes you to wake up in a cold sweat or with a stifled scream? Ask friends and family about what truly scares them, and compile a list of ideas. Then try honing that list and creating ways of writing them effectively.
The essayist also points out that humor, especially in longer pieces, is a very useful tool to have in the horror tool be;t as well.
Humor always plays well in the horror genre because it gives the audience a chance to laugh and dispel tension, before you ratchet up the suspense and horror even more. When you scare us, it makes every fiber in our being taut with tension — so occasionally we need a reprieve, and humor is how that reprieve is achieved.
So it’s not enough to just learn how to utilize various scare methods. I also need to become more fluent in the use of humor done well. That will, of course, take practice, but then that’s all part of the job of writing. Now, my readers, let us go write!
Feel free to share your thoughts on horror in the comments below, or even excerpts of your own horror pieces. How else can we improve our horror fiction, and what methods (and combinations of methods) do you find most useful?