The stormy night. The darkness. Those things that go bump in the night. What is it about the written word that can have such a visceral effect on us when we’re reading scary stories? What primal instinct does it tap into? What emotional strings does it pull? It’s a skill, giving someone goosebumps when they’re reading something in the comfort and safety of their own home. When writing horror…you want that irrational response. You want the reader to jump at every noise in their apartment. You want them to search the darkness around them, or get up to close that ‘slightly open’ closet door. It’s a moment when a writer can invade the minds of his or her readers, and play on their basic fears and concerns in order to build a scenario that they can submerge themselves into and feel all the stress and discomfort that you want them to experience. It can be SO much fun when you get it to work! The question is…how?
One thing that makes horror a bit more difficult with each passing year is the idea that there is more skepticism in a lot of readers now. Those creepy crawlies that used to give people such a scare don’t really cut it in this day and age. Werewolves and vampires have been turned into sexy love interests, zombies have become a viral disease like the common cold, and not even the Devil himself has the same effect as he used to when “The Exorcist” was brand new. I think the suspension of belief is a necessary component when trying to give your readers the heebie jeebies, and that can be hard to pull off when dealing with something that your audience knows, for a fact, isn’t real. So how do you do that? How can you make them believe?
One thing that I’ve learned is that people become more emotionally invested in a story when a heavy dose of present reality is a main part of things. Things people recognize and relate to. The idea of a strange or supernatural phenomena happening in everyday life. If your story is somehow based in a real place, during a real time period, it can be a bit easier for your audience to accept that this is really happening. Balancing the ‘hard to believe’ part of your story with seemingly mundane or every day occurrences can soften the blow when things get…um…’weird’. So don’t just concentrate on the horror aspect of your story. Add some humanity into it. Create characters that people will relate to, and ultimately care about when they’re in danger. Because that’s the horror….the danger. Take time to set up a believable reality for your readers to get used to and comfortable with…and then prepare to snatch that comfort away when they least expect it.
Another basic fear that you can tap into…is the idea that your main character is all ‘alone’. Complete and total isolation when dealing with something that scares you can magnify that fear ten times over. In some of the stories that I’ve written, the idea of the character having to face his circumstances on his own becomes a theme that increases the tension in the storyline. The idea that Wesley in “Savage Moon” is surrounded by people who could easily do him harm with no one to help and no way home…puts him in a very dangerous position. His choices are severely limited, and the consequences of even trying to find a solution can be deadly. In other stories such as “Empty Corners”, “Dream Lover”, or “Gone From Daylight”…even when surrounded by close friends and family…there’s still an element of isolation written into the plot of the story. The skeptic now has to face the skepticism of the people around him. No one believes them, no one knows the truth, no one has a solution. There’s still the frightening concept that whatever the main character is dealing with…he’ll have to do it alone. And I think that separation from others helps to make the readers increase their emotional investment in their plight, and will make them hope for a happy ending.
The best thing about horror…you don’t always have to have a happy ending. Hehehe, so keep that in mind.
When writing, or when reading, tales of terror…there are no ‘jump scares’ like in the movies. No sudden loud noises or people jumping out from the shadows. So you can’t use that to put your audience on edge. With fiction, it’s all about creating an unstable and unsafe atmosphere with your words. Remember, once you’ve isolated your main character from everything he knows to be safe and secure…he’s now completely at your mercy. You want your audience to experience that feeling of helplessness. Because, to be honest, they’re at your mercy as well. Build situations that create ‘discomfort’ in your reader’s minds. Darkness. Being blind to everything around them. Being lost. Being watched or followed. Being restrained or handicapped in some way where they’re unable to run if necessary, or unable to scream. There are many deep seeded fears that make people cringe…use them.
Excessive gore, for those who want to go in for that kind of thing…use it sparingly. Too much is exactly that…too much. You don’t want to turn your audience off. You want to shock them by painting a vivid picture, but using short descriptions and certain key words to convey pain and torture for the victim itself, I find, is more effective. You don’t want to do too much. Create an ‘outline’ for what’s happening, and leave room for the readers to allow their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Trust me…what they can think and feel about this horrific scene is MUCH worse than anything that you can write on your own. Let them be a part of your creative process. Leave space. And together you can build a series of events that truly chills them to the bone.
Remember, don’t do too much. Think of it like standing on the edge of a cliff. You don’t want to push them over the side. You want to take them by the hand…and tell them to step closer. Then closer. You want them on the very edge where they can see the danger of the drop. The depth of the canyon. Then you want to pull them closer. You want their foot to slightly dangle over the edge. You want to keep pulling them closer and closer until they’re SO uncomfortable that they pull away and want to run back to safety. That’s the horror element. Being able to make an audience worry about the possibility of falling over that edge for as long as possible…even if you have no intention of pushing them off.
So…engage your readers with a dose of reality so they’ll be able to get into the story first. Then, introduce your ‘scary’ element a little bit at the time in order to change things up. Don’t worry, they’re already invested in the normality of the story. It’s too late to back out now! Hehehe! Then, as things get darker and more intense, isolate your character from his safe and stable place in the world. Get him alone. Put him in the dark. Really feed into the most basic fears of your audience. Create an atmosphere that your readers will learn to distrust. Make it unstable. Let them know that things could go horribly wrong at ANY moment…and there’s absolutely nothing that they can do about it. Stay away from anything too excessive or over the top when it comes to horror or gore. Remember to keep them grounded in reality if you can…even when the ‘unreal’ happens. Don’t allow them the opportunity to say ‘It’s just a story. It’s not real’. Keep it real. And last, but not least, always keep them guessing. Keep them uncomfortable. And when the time comes, write a scene that shows them why they were so terrified in the first place.
Follow those rules, and you’ll have a captive audience in no time. Skeptical or not.
It’s been fun, teaching you guys how to scare and torture people mentally! Hehehe! But it’s Halloween! So enjoy! Have a scary, but ‘safe’, holiday folks! This has been Comsie Talks October…and remember NOT to go over the cliff!