“Talk about your ghosts. Man oh man.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
Hello all and good evening! This go around, I’m writing a continuation of last week’s “Lessons to Practice” by offering up some of my own thoughts and ideas for penning a great horror story. Ready to dive in? Make sure the lights are out first!
Now that we’re armed with the knowledge of how scary stories unnerve us, let’s talk writing creative fiction in this genre.
Setting the Foundation
Before diving in to your word processor, a note on beginnings. When you first come up with the premise of your horror tale, immediately do a full-body scan. This is a psychology term which simply means to check in on yourself. Take a comfy seat. Begin turning your story idea over in your head. What bodily sensations are you experiencing as you mull it over? How about as you envision the monsters and other otherworldly atrocities that will force your heroes to fight for their lives? If you feel a chill run down your spine, look over your shoulder to check that dark corner in your room, or actually grimace in revulsion, then chances are you’ve struck gold and tapped into your own ghosts. Now run with them.
Outlining, plotting, and developing characters are three excellent next steps. As I mentioned in my “Lessons to Practice #8,” a strong story centers on an even stronger protagonist. Your lead will capture the hearts of your readers, so long as you give him or her interesting quirks, memorable traits, and clearly defined motives that most of us can relate to.
Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls in horror movies and stories is neglecting to create a compelling central character. Oftentimes, the lead is either obnoxiously naïve or overly helpless (I’m sorry, but I’m looking at you, Jaime Lee Curtis). Do your best to avoid such pitfalls by imbuing your heroine or hero with a fairly balanced list of strengths and weaknesses, vices and virtues. Fortunately, there are quite a few well-written protagonists in a variety of horror movies and stories. Here are just a few for your inspiration.
My next recommendation is that you create an outline of your major story points after you’ve written up the bios of your protagonist and secondary characters. That way the sequence of your plot points unfolds more naturally and matches the highs and lows that your characters go through. As a result, your story will move along at a brisk pace, even as you are terrorizing your poor readers. However, it’s always an excellent idea to adjust pacing to match your storytelling. Be sure to draw out those scenes which are the most unnerving and disturbing. This will ensure that you keep your readers tossing and turning after they’ve set your book aside for the night.
Finding a Mindset for Dread
As you write, there are several resources you can tap in order to stoke your twisted creativity. For me, I find that working on my post-apocalyptic novel, Stalder Press to Handstand, becomes more fruitful in the terror department if I listen to horror music. Some of my favorites include the Silent Hill OSTs by Akira Yamaoka, as well as music by Avith Ortega and Disasterpeace.
Check out these two songs below and see if they immerse you in that place of utter dread.
Art is also an excellent resource for uncovering your own demons – and then going hog-wild with them as you write. For an unsettling time, check out the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, and Francis Bacon. Many of these surreal works tap into that sense of human perception and dissonance that I mentioned in last week’s “Lessons to Practice” entry.” They’re also pretty damn unsettling in a very primal way.
Tying it All Together
At the end of the day, writing horror can be a draining process. The gloom and doom of death, demons, and decay wear us out. While I love a good scare as much as the next person, always remember one crucial detail: at the heart of every memorable scary story is a person fighting to survive and persevere. In my humble opinion, a masterful horror odyssey gives readers just enough to fear, then rewards them with a fitting ending and a glimpse of hope — that human life will continue, or that we will overcome our own demons. It’s okay to have a tragic or depressing ending, too. Just remember to bring the occasional light to your dark tale.
After all, your demons will always be around for your next horror story.