“On Writing Horror” – Part Three

David | Oct 4, 2009 min read

Part 3 of On Writing Horror is titled “Developing Horror Concepts”. It contains four articles dealing with conceiving and developing ideas for horror.

A World of Dark and Disturbing Ideas, J. N. Williamson

Williamson chooses to speak in terms of “useful premise” as opposed to “idea”, and I can appreciate his working definition. Idea’s are great, but they are largely useless if they cannot or will not be executed. This is true pretty much regardless of profession or circumstance. Per Williamson, a “useful premise” is:

a concept that (1) may be new or hasn’t been developed into a plot for quite awhile, (2) the writer is comfortable with, and (3) for which, it can be reasonably assumed an accessible market exists.

Great working definition, and good advice. Ideas are great, but if it’s not relatively unique, you’re not comfortable with it, and there’s no certainty around marketing it, move on.

He moves on to talk about the “Hypnagogic State” as being an essential resource of “useful premises” for him. As I read, I thought of a few things I’m familiar with - the concepts of Lucid Dreaming and the Akashic Records. Williamson seems essentially to be talking about dreaming with intention, or staging yourself so that, when you fall asleep, you’re able to tap into the workings of your unconscious mind to work up your own “useful premises”. Whatever the method or the terminology, I like what he’s talking about, and I try to utilize it myself. It’s a controlled wandering of the mind, a release and freedom to explore that seems to be an extremely difficult thing to accomplish in today’s society - due to constant, unfettered access (email, cell phone, instant messaging) and increased demands for our time and attention by things other than writing. I think the crux of Williamson’s article here is pretty much that you have to make time for your craft, for your mind to work beyond just “ideas” by being permitted to focus an idea into a “useful premise”. We, as writers, have to make time to get in touch, and stay in touch, with our creative side.

Mirror, Mirror, Wayne Allen Sallee

Sallee’s article addresses ‘getting ideas’. Personally, I didn’t find anything really new in here. It’s a decent summary of where a writer can find ideas, though. Essentially, he talks about finding ideas in the circumstances that surround you (like news stories, etc), finding characters by observing the people around you, and finding horrors by introspection.

There were a few things he mentioned that I find interesting, though. In the section about introspection, he says that while terror may not be new, there is the potential for a new angle by understanding different behavioral traits. I noted in the margins that “changes in understanding and perspective on behavior provide a fresh look”. Contemporary psychology provides an opportunity for redefining the old tropes by allowing for different reasons and perspectives on circumstances.

The other interesting piece in here that I hadn’t considered comes in his final section. He suggests that the contemporary horror writer is faced with greater challenge than ever because our readers are constantly bombarded with horror in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. This is incredibly important, I think, even though it’s not about how a writer finds ideas because it’s critical in understanding which ideas are ‘useful’. He further suggests that in spite of this, successful writing must have characters (good or bad) with human traits of affliction. The humanity of our characters is what will help to bind them to our readers and create the shared experience we all must drive for.

Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You, Michael Marano

One of the best ways to ensure you’ll frighten your audience is by writing about what frightens you. I think Marano definitely has a valid point here, but I think it’s even broader. It’s about getting the emotion into the writing in general. If the writer believes in his own work, feels the blood rushing through his veins, his temperature rise, the cacophony and confusion that result from stress, it’ll come through in the work.

Marano poses a few ways of honing this ability. One is the often cited means of copying another writer’s work. The idea is that by going through the process of actually writing out scenes that move you, you learn how to write such scenes yourself. This is pretty common advice (at least it has been in my experience) - to become a master, start by copying one. I’m not really a fan of this. I’ve tried it, and I always wind up getting caught up in the mechanics of the process, like a transcriber rather than a student. It may work for some, but I’ve not felt any great personal gain by this exercise.

Method Acting is another tactic he poses a possible route for getting the emotion into it. This is one I do draw on, but it’s more of an instinctive response rather than a planned out or focused activity. I find myself dropping down into my characters at tense moments and trying to link their situation with some similar emotional situation in my own past. It’s also something I find works best for me incorporated into my writing process, not set aside as a precursor to writing.

The last method he discusses is one of my favorites - that of surrounding important items with “negative space” or empty space. This is something I also experimented with in my poetry writings - the power of what’s left unsaid. I find that some of my more best (most fulfilling) writing often comes by giving incomplete descriptions, what Marano calls “strategic glimpses”. There’s a powerful psychology at work underneath this tactic, one that serves to pull the reader in - the idea of the Gestalt effect. In simplest terms, it’s the natural tendency of our minds to ‘fill in the blanks’. By leaving strategic blanks, or divulging only glimpses of an image, you force the reader into completing the picture with what is most terrifying to them.

Honest Lies and Darker Truths: History and Horror Fiction, Richard Gilliam

I’m not all that interested in historical fiction, but there were some items in Gilliam’s article that I found interesting. His article seems mostly geared towards helping those interested in writing historical fiction through understanding how to research and how to apply that research. I think the most interesting part of this article is Gilliam’s discussion on accuracy and relevance. I can agree with him that, it is the relevance of a story that makes historical fiction stand out, as opposed to its historical accuracy. This links back to the idea of character. If the characters in the story are both interesting and relevant to the audience, then historical inaccuracy is likely to be forgiven or ignored by most.

Gilliam also discusses a few forms of historical fiction - the “What-If” story, and the “Parable”.

He says the first is an underutilized form, and that there’s two possible problems with its use. One possible problem is that the premise is more interesting than the story. The other, that the subject’s personality may conflict with the “what-if”. In the what-if, there’s a challenge of keeping an ‘honest lie’, keeping true to the character’s historical personality while changing the context.

The Parable is retelling a contemporary situation in a historical context. The prime example he offers, which most writer’s are familiar with, is that of The Crucible as a repesentation of the McCarthy trials.

Interesting, but not all that relevant to me right now. Why? Well, his next section on Gothic Horror sums up why I think it’s in my best interest to steer clear of historical fiction:

Most commercially successful horror fiction has a contemporary setting.

I think my horror writing is best told in a contemporary setting, so I’m going to stick with that for now.

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