Another Round of How-To, Part 2

David | Mar 23, 2010 min read

This is part two of a three-part journal on How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Edited by J. N. Williamson, a collection of How-To articles by some of the best horror writers, circa 1987. Part one covered chapters 1-8.

In my first post, I mentioned how strikingly similar the advice is to that found in On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa 2007. I’ve still found this to hold true. I don’t mean that as a slight against either work, as the essays in both are unique to the authors. For me, this reinforces that the advice found within each work has a certain timeless quality to it even though markets have changed.

Stepping Into the Shadows, Charles Grant

Grant opens by telling us that the main purpose of horror “is to tell a story that will, somewhere along the line, give the reader a chill, a shiver, a good scare.” Without that, the story won’t work. In order to set up a situation that will deliver, Grant prefers “shadows more than daylight.”

What Grant is getting at is that horror is not about the shock value. While shock can and often does have its place in modern horror, it is not the purpose. Well-described scenes of violence are, in Grant’s words, “unimaginative and untalented”. The reaction to such scenes are not fear, but revulsion. Shock is but one tool in the toolbox of the horror writer.

Grant prescribes three elements for good horror, all of which he feels must be present.

The first element is sympathetic characters. We must have characters that are likable. Or if not entirely likable, the characters must be someone the reader cares about.

The second element is tension. We can’t just throw the reader into the midst of the storm, we must let them see it brewing on the horizon first.

The last element is fantasy. Grant is talking about avoiding rehashing old monsters. To keep our horror fresh, we must use fresh monsters. Monsters are literalizations of our fear. Grant’s main point here is that we can keep our monsters fresh by working with the unknown.

I think Grant is right about these three elements, and I also agree that while shock is a tool in the horror writer’s toolbox, it is by no means the necessary for good horror. One of the reasons I love H. P. Lovecraft is that he often keeps the horror out of sight, leaving the most frightening aspects for the work of the reader’s imagination.

Innocence and Terror–The Heart of Horror, Robert R. McCammon

Horror is about the human condition. McCammon finds an excellent example for this premise in “A Christmas Carol”. But it seems that even back in 1987 horror carried the stigma of being little more than shock and gore. Yeah, I know, probably even well before 1987 horror carried this stigma. But McCammon has a great point, that horror is more than raw emotion. In order for it to do its job well, horror must also appeal to the intellect.

Humanity is what’s missing from bad horror fiction. How can a reader feel the delicious anticipation of fear if the book has no humanity, if the characters aren’t real enough to reach out and touch, if the world that book represents is not detailed and colored and lavished with attention?

McCammon also refers to innocence, which one may find a strange topic for horror. The concept raised my curiosity. What he’s referring to, though, isn’t necessarily the innocence of the characters, but the sense of wonder the author brings to the work. I think this ties back to Grant’s notion of reinventing our monsters to keep the work fresh. Much of this article, I would say, supports the same concepts as Grant addressed.

What it boils down to for me is that horror–any good fiction, actually–must be about the human condition. I’ve often heard some of the best work in Science Fiction–you know, those that transcend the genre–as being in tune with the human condition, but rarely have I heard the phrase used in praise of horror. I try to make the work more about the people, because I think that we can best evoke emotions of fear by pulling the reader along through real situation with real people.

Finally, McCammon urges us as writers to have the courage to tackle complex issues. As I read this, I thought of Stephen King (of course). His work often touches on or represents complex social issues. The Stand has as a major element the breakdown of technology and the ways in which it has failed humanity. I would also say The Dark Tower series has much of the same ideas around technological breakdown at its core. Carrie, which I just finished rereading, is all about the severe cruelty that adolescents are capable of.

So I think the key here is to keep our work in tune with humanity. The more we make the work about the human condition, the more likely we are to connect with the issues–simple or complex–that are dear to our readers.

*World Building in Horror, Occult, and Fantasy Writing***, Marion Zimmer Bradley**

Bradley’s article is all about setting the rules for your work. She tells us that horror isn’t necessarily about the supernatural, and that you accomplish good world building through doing your homework.

She refers to isolation as being a tremendously useful element in horror, but that creating believable isolation is difficult. With today’s ever-connected society, it seems nearly impossible to create believable isolation. I blame the cell phone. Too often we see the old “No Signal” bit pulled in movies and stories. John August has a nice little write-up on his blog called “No signal” is the new air duct. So how do we deal with building worlds?

Bradley has some good advice in her piece, which I won’t recap here. But I will touch on a few items that are important to me.

First, she brings up the idea of superheros, and the difficulties the early Superman comics had in finding stories because he was, well, Superman. He could do anything. No one could relate, and there was no way to beat him. The horror writer has a similar problem in the Devil. Weak horror often calls upon the Devil as the stock representation of evil. She goes on to discuss Stoker’s Dracula as an excellent example for setting boundaries for your bad guy. She recounts a passage where Dr. Van Helsing explains all the limits on the vampire, which serves as a great example for how the horror writer can keep the bad guy from being “the Devil”. In my thesis novel, I originally set out with a bad guy that was too awesome. As I’ve worked through it, I whittled away all his awesome superpowers and tried to put constraints in place that could be used against him.

The other piece in Bradley’s article that stuck with me is near the end. Bradley says,

The major choice, then, for the writer of horror, fiction or nonfiction, is to choose between limited and unlimited views of reality–the horrors of the tabloid writer, the true-crime addict, or the specialist in abnormal psychiatry, whether or not the unknown belongs to a different order of reality–to choose between the worlds, in fact, of the policeman, the priest, or the parapsychologist.

I think she does a nice job of distilling horror worlds down in that last part. While the work may not contain a policeman, a priest, or a parapsychologist, the world represented in any horror novel could likely be represented by one of them. I considered my thesis novel from this perspective, and I found that I had blended worlds–probably too much. I was working in both the world of the police and the world of the priest. I might be able to make it work, but I think by choosing one I’ll get better focus on the story.

Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess, Darrell Schweitzer

I’ll say up front that I didn’t have much interest in this article, simply because I don’t have much interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction. I love Conan as much as the next guy, but I don’t have any interest today in working in the genre. Schweitzer admits as much in the opening of his article, so I don’t feel bad admitting it.

Schweitzer gives a good list of pointers on how to write sword-and-sorcery, which I won’t recount here. If you’re into writing such a thing, and you’re looking for some pointer, this is a definite read.

But once I finished, I realized that there was something in horror that relates. If you’re a Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi fan, you probably already guessed. Both Army of Darkness and My Name is Bruce do a wonderful job as horror parodies by taking the elements of a horror story and telling them using the elements of sword-and-sorcery. So while this article wasn’t about genre blending, it gave me a little insight into why those movies work as parodies.

*Science Fiction: Hard Science and Hard Conflict***, Michael A. Banks**

This article is a three-stage guide to help those intimidated by the idea of writing science fiction. Why would one be intimidated? Banks tells us, and I think rightly so, that many writers shy away from it because of the science aspect. What Banks explains is that you don’t need to have a deep scientific background to write science fiction, but only a “technical orientation”.

The first stage he discusses is deciding how much the technical details will play in the story. If the technology is just part of the setting, then there’s no need go any deeper than you would in discussing airplanes just because your character got on a plane. But if the technology is part of the conflict, then you’d better be ready to go into deep detail to support the story.

The second stage is to acquire the knowledge. Banks give plenty of examples on how he collects knowledge, largely by leveraging people around him, or by reading contemporary hard science fiction.

In the third stage, Banks describes how to work the science in without being obvious. He tells us to think of it like developing a character, and give much of the same advice found in character development. Avoid information dumps, use only necessary details, and if all else fails, have on character explain something to another. But not in a contrived way.

While his article addresses using science in fiction, I think his last points are relevant for how a writer in any genre can incorporate uncommon facts into a story. As writers, we need to be sensitive to what our readers are likely to know so that we can avoid bludgeoning them with common facts and enlighten them discreetly when needed.

*Researching Science Fantasy***, Sharon Baker**

Baker’s article, like the previous article by Banks, discusses research related to Science Fiction. Yeah, you probably got that from the title. But her angle is a little different. Instead of talking about researching facts, she addresses a few places to draw from to create a plausible background.

The first place she discusses is people. I found it interesting that part of her research involved shadowing a cop, because slavery played an important part of the world she was building. She did this because she drew a connection and realized that prostitutes served as a real-world analogy to the slaves in her work.

She provides several detailed examples on other places she drew from, which include:

  • Semetic languages, used as a model to develop a new language
  • The Merck Manual of symptoms and treatments to develop a poison and its cure
  • Oral Tradition and Middle Eastern Myth to develop a new mythology
  • Personal experience with loss
  • Ancient Middle Eastern Architecture to develop unique city structures

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these items is a catch-all approach for accomplishing world building, but I do believe that what Baker demonstrates is the need to be observant and resourceful. She found and used as many parallels in reality as possible when developing her work, and drawing on reality adds to a story’s plausibility.

Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death, Ramsey Campbell

Campbell’s article addresses the issue we all face of keeping our writing fresh. He says that while some people claim there’s nothing new in horror, that the situation isn’t as bad as it may sound. According to Campbell, “many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.” I can agree with that. I think that anything that touches on the human condition is timeless.

The first advice he gives on avoiding what’s been done is to be true to yourself. By that, he means to keep in touch with your genre by being well-read, but also to read outside your genre. See your work as part of a larger art. He also suggests that you find your own voice. This is not new advice for me, but it bears repeating because it’s so critical to developing your work.

He goes on to discuss how the idea of evil in horror is often presented “in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless–something vague out there that causes folks to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us.” I have struggled with this myself. For evil to work in horror, it must be more than “the Devil” (to borrow from Bradley’s article). We must put a face on it, make it tangible, and show how it relates to our characters and our readers. We can accomplish this by making the evil real to us, as the writer, to get us more involved with the work and draw our own emotional charges onto the page.

Another point of advice Campbell gives is that “the best way for a writer to compete is with oneself, to do better than one did last time.” I think this is often an overlooked bit of advice, but one that can help a writer focus better. When you compete with someone else, you’re using an external measure to gage your work. Which can be okay, but how can you be sure that the external work you’re using is right? I’ve found that once I stopped wanting to write like [insert favorite author here], my work began to develop at a much quicker pace. I can never be like any other writer, or if I am, then I can never be better. Too often we see log lines like “the next Stephen King,” or “the next Dean Koontz.” In the sense of marketing, having such statements on a book is okay. But the writer should never think like that. I don’t want to be the next Stephen King–the world already has one. I want to be the first David L. Day.

Campell provides a few other points of advice, such as over-writing in the first draft, combining unrelated ideas, and leaving yourself a ragged edge at the end of a work session. All of these are fine advice, but I think the best point of this article is that of competing with yourself.

Why Novels of Fear Must do More than Frighten, Dean R. Koontz

Koontz’s second article in the book covers going beyond the scare in horror. He tells us that works of horror “often fail to achieve the effect they seek because they are trying to do nothing else but scare the reader. Fear cannot be generated in a vacuum.” We must evoke other emotions. This article reiterates advice found in those by Grant and McCammon.

Koontz tells us that we can get at those other emotions by making our characters both empathetic and sympathetic. Absolutely. Our readers must care about and like our characters. Not new advice, but good reinforcement. What Koontz delivers here that aren’t in the other articles are five common errors committed by new writers. I’ll sum them up, but the article is worth the read.

  1. Characters must not act irrationally and must not get into trouble due to stupid decisions
  2. Characters must not be passive
  3. Lead characters must not be superheros who always succeed
  4. Characters must have lives shown outside the central story
  5. Lead characters must be concerned with more than just their own fate

It’s the first time I’ve encountered a list like this, and I think they’re all good things to watch for. Missing any one of these can lead to two-dimensional characters that the reader either won’t like or won’t care about. I struggle with number four, and often forget to show that characters have lives that go on outside the main story line. But without it, can the reader ever really get to know the character? I don’t think so. We can learn a lot about a person by the little, daily interactions they have. We don’t need to weigh down our work with every little detail, but the right details in the right place will help the reader develop a full picture of our characters.

The Supernatural? Naturally!, J. N. Williamson

I don’t think there’s a good way to summarize this article, so I won’t even try. What I got from it is that we need to approach horror as fantasy, and need to allow ourselves as reader to engage in the fantastic. Williamson talks about being comfortable with the ideas of the supernatural to write horror. I can get behind that. What most intrigued me, though, was the extent to which Williamson talks about his own shifting beliefs as a driver for his work. His beliefs serve to build story credibility and guide his work because, he says, “most people want to believe what the majority of other persons believed or have believed.” I think the core of his advice is:

Consequently, if I, as an author, can buttress the otherwise-improbable premises of my work by what was accepted as real or true by a large number of my fellow human beings, it stands to reason that I am more acceptable in my fictive intrigues, prepared to arouse, convince, and hold the attention of readers for the time it takes to read that fictional work.

When I stop to consider my work, I realize there’s a reason for the heavy use of western religious elements. I had a lot of exposure to many flavors of Christianity as a child, as well as a good sampling of Eastern religions. I find my strongest work comes out when I use these elements, and it seems that my strong belief–at least at one time in my life–in these elements is one reason for this. Working with what we believe adds to the realism of our stories. It’s one aspect to writing honestly, because if we don’t believe in what we’re writing, neither will our readers.

This wraps up part two. Part three will be a couple weeks out. Until then, peace.

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