“On Writing Horror” – Part Four

David | Oct 7, 2009

Part 4 of On Writing Horror is titled “Horror Crafting”, and encompasses 7 articles on the craft. So many articles, and much of it is advice I’ve heard before, so I’m going to keep this as short as I can.

Such Horrible People, Tina Jens

Per Jens, “Horror is about how people react when they encounter the plot.” So to have good horror, we need good characters who interact with the plot. That’s nothing new to me, and it’s sound advice.

Jens goes on to talk about balancing out developing plot and character, describing an initial process where you (the writer) might start with and idea, find characters to put in, jump back to plot to find the “monster’s” goal, who’s the monster up against, etc. Then she says that, after some initial back and forth, it’s time to stop with the plotting and get to know your characters.

She outlines several things writer’s can do to develop their characters: starting with people you know, working with picture files, developing full-fledged character sketches. She does a good job of covering these, a good introductory source for those interested.

She continues on to say the payoff in doing all this seemingly unnecessary work is that now you have created characters that you can trust to help you develop the plot by interacting and reacting rather than just following orders. Or something along those lines. She sums the concept up well, “Listen to your characters. It pays off.”

Again, a definite plus, but also pretty common advice (at least to me). But I think there’s something much more important here than just, “knowing and trusting your characters”.

Building an awareness and a trust in your characters is a misnomer. They’re not real. What this process really does is help the writer develop an awareness and trust in themselves, and tune the skills of imagine characters in toto, so that as the plot develops, the writer isn’t constantly second guessing or making inconsistent decisions.

Let’s take the question of, “What would my character have for breakfast?” Sure, who cares, but stay with me a moment. The writer who has to stop and consider this while plotting needs to refine their skills on character by utilizing processes such as Jens describes. But, the goal is not to produce mountains of character sketches and character data that will never be incorporated into the story. The goal is to use the process to develop those skills internally, so that the next question that comes up can be answered with confidence and consistency. We all have weak spots, so some writers may have to do character sketches the rest of their careers, but that’s okay. Just as long as they keep sight of the point - build trust and confidence in your knowledge of the characters.

A Hand on the Shoulder, Joe R. Lansdale

Lansdale’s article is primarily about environment. He raises an interesting perspective on the writer’s connection to his or her environment, and how to benefit from it. I think his main thrust is something I’ve only recently come to recognize. I’ve always been tempted to set my stories in exotic places with strange characters. Who isn’t? But, there’s an incredible benefit to using what’s around me everyday in my stories. It creates a sense of honesty in the lie.

My environment is a part of who I am and what I know. If I use it (the familiar settings and characters) as fundamental elements in my writing, then it shows through in both confidence and style. Plus, when I do break from those and delve into the ‘unusual’, it has greater impact. The normal aspects of my writing become more believable because they are real things, not imagined. There’s no need to dream up the real world when it’s right in front of us. Save the creative efforts for those things that aren’t real (we hope…)

Eerie Events and Horrible Happenings: Plotting Short Horror Fiction, Nicholas Kaufmann

I didn’t find much personal value in Kaufmann’s article because it’s concerned with short fiction. I’m currently working on novel related skills, and I’ve also been working with short stories for a few years now.

That’s not to say there’s no value in the article. It’s does a good job of covering the fundamentals of short horror fiction. Some of the basics covered:

  • Start close to the action.
  • Every scene should be related to the plot
  • The main character must either have the most to lose or the most to gain
  • Short stories usually stick to one conflict
  • The end must tie directly to the main conflict

Definitely one I’ll use to refresh myself when I tackle my next short story.

Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction, Mort Castle

Castle’s article carries a message similar to Lansdale’s. Save the imagination for the places it really matters. Good fiction must be credible, and the best way to achieve that is to keep as close to the truth as possible when it comes to setting and character. Two quotes sum this up:

…readers are familiar with the ordinary; they live there. Readers relate to the ordinary…


When the ordinary is invaded by the terrifyingly extraordinary, horror happens.

I like that last one, and I’m striving to keep it close to the heart. In a world where everything is fantastic, everyone is a monster or a superhero, then the writer has to work extra hard to bring in anything with shock value. But, if we keep things as close to normal as possible, then shocking the reader should come more easily.

“He Said?” She Asked: Some Thoughts About Dialog, David Morrell

Dialog has and is one of my toughest challenges. At least it’s where I’ve been spending most of my focus lately. The advice found in here is an invaluable listing of the fundamentals of dialog. Morrell addresses the following common problems in dialog:

  • Use of tags - Stick to the basics: said, asked, and a few others.
  • Use of adverbs - DON’T
  • Use of punctuation - Stick to periods and question marks. Emphasize through action or description, not tags or exclamation marks.
  • Colloquialisms - Extreme moderation
  • Sloppy Diction via misspelled words - Again, Extreme moderation

Worth the read for anyone just getting into dialog challenges.

Keep It Moving, Maniacs: Writing Action Scenes in Horror Fiction, Jay R. Bonansinga

Writing action is like writing poetry. While Bonansinga doesn’t say this directly, I think it’s a fair way to sum up the first part of his article. The point is to get the language to match the action. Fundamentally, it’s about rhythm, establishing it and getting it to change along with the action of the scene. Bonansinga describes various techniques that include moving from terse sentences to more free-form, abrubt insertion of all caps, and alliteration.

The other considerations he covers are:

  • Presenting through a character - action should be shown subjectively to provide emotional as well as physical response.
  • Engaging the environment - having the character interact with the environment to enhance action.
  • Details - make use of the human tendency to fixate on details during violent events.
  • Time - make time compress and expand to bring focus in on the action and expedite periods of inactivity.

I really appreciate his final words on the subject:

That’s what action is.

A human being in peril - forced to perceive.

The Dark Enchantment of Style, Bruce Holland Rogers

Rogers reiterates what I think is pretty common advice on the subject of style. Read, analyze and practice. But, there are two new perspectives he presents that I think are invaluable.

I struggle with style constantly, but I’ve never been certain why. Style has always been something an author has in my mind, and Rogers says flat out that this is wrong. In fact, he says that finding your voice is inappropriate advice. The trick is, and I agree, to find the voice for each story. That voice may, and likely will, be different. Yes, a writer may have a particular style that shines through every work, but I agree with Rogers when he says:

The voice, rather, is one that is just right for telling a particular kind of tale.


A good writer suites the telling to the tale.

The other piece of advice he gives is to slow down in both reading and writing. It’s a process he’s suggesting, one that will serve to make the writer more aware of language, and that certainly can’t hurt.

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