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Saturday, November 27, 2010

He Screamed, She Screamed

Todd H. C. Fischer and Melanie E. Fischer

Appeared in Writers’ Journal Vol. 20 # 3.

The Fischers (authors, artists and editors/publishers of imelod, the litzine of horror and the bizarre) offer their views on the art of horror writing.


He Screamed

The rules for writing a good horror story are generally the same as for any other genre. 

Firstly, you must have interesting characters that develop and change over the course of the story. These characters should be realistic and believable, even your supernatural ones. A vampire mindlessly sucking blood is boring; give him/her a personality, dreams, hopes, hatreds, what have you. If you fail to flesh out your characters, your readers will be bored by them. (A good example of this is in Brian Lumley’s Necroscope/Vampire World novels. His vampire characters are in-depth and extremely interesting. My personal favourite from these books is the fox-Lord, Canker Canison.)

Next is plot. Try and come up with something new, an angle that nobody has used before. If you like the X-Files and want to write about government agencies investigating the paranormal, great. But put your own spin on it. Make it your own. Pale imitations may get published, but they’ll bring you the wrong type of attention.

Tied in with the plot is the supernatural element. This is the keystone to your story, and should thus be the one you spend the most energy on. Remember, people have been writing and telling ghost stories for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. If you are going to use a supernatural beastie that is part of the common consciousness (like a werewolf) you need to try and come up with your own special kind of werewolf. Numerous werewolf stories and movies come out every year, yet how many have made an impression on the public mind? Change the werewolf (or whatever monster you are using) and make it unique. One story I read (the name of which, and the author, escapes me at the moment) tied the theme of lychanthropy in with the female menstrual cycle. This is an excellent case in point of making your story unique.

Even better than changing a well known myth pattern, is to create your own. This is much harder to do, but much more rewarding. If you do it well, you may end up creating a whole new myth pattern. In the 1930’s a pulp writer named H. P. Lovecraft did just such a thing. Tired of ghosts and phantoms he created a pantheon of extraterrestrial beings that came to earth eons ago and slumber beneath our feet, influencing us through dreams. While unappreciated at the time, Lovecraft has since been crowned as the father of modern horror. People such as Stephen King, Clive Barker, J. Michael Straczynski and John Carpenter name him as a primary influence. His creations and themes still pop up in movies, television, comics, music and computer games. It may seem a lot of work, but think of the possible pay-off.

Research is also important. If you’re going to use an existing monster, use one people don’t remember anymore. Part of the appeal say, of the X-Files, is that they tend to use uncommon creatures or monsters from ancient lore. A recent episode concerned a demon from the old Czechoslovakia that stole children. Dig around. Use creatures that most people have forgotten about. Books such as the dictionaries published by Aquarian are good sources, as are faerie tales (by Anderson, Grimm and Pushkin), Faeries (by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, published by Peacock/Bantam), and many others. Scour the occult section at your local bookstores.

Lastly I’ll say a word or two about dialogue. This is the area where most writers lose their story’s credibility. Dialogue, in any genre, should sound realistic and unforced, even when talking about something outré like zombies or hell hounds. A good exercise to see if your dialogue works well, is to read it aloud with a partner. Skip the narration, just read the dialogue. If it doesn’t flow, or seems too jumpy or unrealistic, it’s time to do some editing.

I think perhaps the most important thing you can do if you want to write horror, is to read it. By reading you will unconsciously pick up on some of the tricks of the trade and see how these guys (and gals) constructed their tales. If you’re writing short stories try checking out Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural (edited by Marvin Kaye, published by Doubleday) and Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown (edited by Marvin Kaye, published by Guild America), the Year’s Best Horror series edited by Karl Edward Wagner, the Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy series edited by Ellen Datlow, or anything edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Charles L. Grant or Douglas E. Winter. If it’s a novel you’re working on, try Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Saul, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz or Robert R. McCammon.

By keeping these few points in mind, you’ll insure that your final product will be a much more enjoyable read, and a better prospect for potential publication.

She Screamed
I am always surprised by the attitude towards horror stories and horror writers in general by most literary critics. It seems that the popular opinion is that horror is schlock  and no better than a romance novel! (No offence to romance novelists!) Granted, there is some bad horror out there (and I mean bad) but can’t that be said of any genre? Are there not bad drama writers? Bad suspense writers? Bad mystery, sci-fi, fiction and non-fiction writers? Of course there are. And just as many of these genres have great writers, just as horror has its great writers. Consider that the horror writer has to not only write the horror elements of a story, but all the rest that every other writer has to write. All the drama, mystery, suspense, romance or even comedy with horror mixed in for good measure.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is the first key to writing horror successfully. The author must first have a good story to start with. The actual story is the most important element of good horror, including of course, believable characters and a well thought out plot.

Second, the elements of horror must be woven into the story in a coherent and naturally horrific manner. So the second most important component is how you tell the tale. This is where good description comes in. A slasher running around killing everyone for no reason is not very good as a story, but the story of a slasher who has a motive that is described, and into whose mind we are shown, has the potential to be intriguing. Some of the strongest emotions in people are evoked by smell - use elements like the senses to make the suspense more real. Describe what a character is experiencing, not just what they are doing. One of the things that I believe makes Stephen King’s novels so successful is his description of what is going on inside his characters heads, what they are thinking/feeling in relation to what is happening. Try to put yourself in the place of the character and feel as they would. Try to really know your characters, it helps when you sit down to write for them. Treat them real and they’ll come across as real to the reader.

Good dialogue is another key element to any story. Try taking a notebook with you on the bus or to school/work and write down conversations you hear. This can help you get a feel for natural dialogue. Think about what you have your characters saying, try reading it aloud to friend or taping it to hear it yourself. Dialogue must sound natural, and that’s sometimes the hardest thing to do for writers. The best thing to do is just listen to how people talk, and that’s real people, not people from Melrose Place or Dawson’s Creek - somebody else has already written what they say. You want to write what your characters will say, realistically.

More is less - lots of gore does not a horror story make. Gore, blood and guts etc. like hardcore language or sex has its place, but try to be sure you are using it in its proper place. A story that is full of sex or blood flying everywhere that doesn’t advance the plot is gratuitous. Use it sparingly, but effectively with great description and character reactions to heighten the horror.

Lastly, try to have an original monster/threat/supernatural element in your story. The most important thing to being original is to avoid cliches. May sound obvious, but there are so many cliched horror writers out there, we really don’t need any more! If an idea feels too familiar, it probably is and you’ve picked it up unconsciously. Of course, its incredibly hard to be completely original, so putting your own twist on something familiar is a good start.

Overall, just concentrate on being a good writer and you’ll be on your way to becoming a good horror writer. Schlock has its place, but a good story is so much better.
(c) Todd H. C. Fischer and Melanie E. Fischer, 1998. If interested in publishing this work, please contact the author.

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