So last month we talked about the three ‘umbrella’ terms for horror – Visceral, Psychological, and Supernatural. Remember that a horror story can encompass one or more of those areas and still be horror.
But how do you go about writing a horror story? This post is essentially for those of you who have never written a horror story, or wanted to and weren’t sure where to start. If you have written horror before, then maybe try this five point program and try writing a story that sits under a different umbrella.
1) Read horror – and lots of it!
This should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many people try to write a genre without reading it first. Don’t worry that you’ll end up copying someone else’s ideas – your concepts might be similar, but your execution will be entirely yours as only you will view your idea in your particular way. Decide which of the umbrellas you might want to sit under and read within that sub-genre. Watch horror films, too. Films and literature are not the same, but you can learn a lot about pacing and structure from films. Treat this as ‘research’. Check out Goodreads for recommendations for where to start. Hell, ask me, and I’ll give you a homework list of films to watch!
Now you’ve done your research, you’ll be much better placed to know how your chosen sub-genre works. Generic conventions are not a straitjacket – they’re more like set dressing. Humans like the comfort of familiarity, and are often drawn to ‘more of the same’. You just give them that, but with your own unique twist!
That said, you don’t just want to write about the same stuff as everyone else. If you’ve read a novel about a cannibal who lives in the basement of a creepy house then you probably aren’t going to write a novel about the same thing. But you might want to write about something else that lives in a basement – only this one might be the basement of a shiny, upmarket New York apartment building. What is it? How did it get there? This is what you’ll put in your brainstorm – settings, time periods, characters, anything that really caught your attention. You need a pool of ideas in which to go fishing.
3) Get scared.
Unlike film noir or the Western, which are genres bound by iconography and themes, horror and comedy are two of the rare genres that rely on the emotion they produce. Clearly horror’s goal is to horrify (there is a subset of horror, called terror, which is obviously meant to terrify – this road will lead you towards Psychological horror and the world of the thriller). So add more things to your brainstorm – this time, add things that scare you. Phobias are fine, too. Would IT have worked if Pennywise wasn’t a clown?
True, some things might scare you that don’t scare other people – I know someone who’s terrified of cotton wool – but put them down anyway. Your brainstorm is essentially a mind dump, and you’ll pick through for gems when you’re done. You can even add sensations – loneliness is a popular one, and ‘not fitting in’ gave us Carrie!
4) Mix and match!
Put your brainstorm aside for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. Look at what you’ve added. Are there any common themes? Does anything leap out? Underline those words, or highlight them in some way. Once you’ve picked out a few things, write them on a new sheet of paper, with plenty of space around them. Now you can see them more clearly, really think about what words you’ve got. What connections can you make between them? Maybe you’ve got ‘roadside diner’, ‘poltergeist’, and ‘dark places’. You might immediately think about a poltergeist who terrorises the patrons of a roadside diner, one which is already struggling for business as it competes with McDonalds. So who is afraid of the dark? Could it be your protagonist? From this point, you’re then working up a plot, all from what you added to your brainstorm.
5) Now get writing.
This process might sound dreadfully formulaic, but the brainstorm is essentially just a catalyst, something to get you going. Once you know who and what your story will be about, your creative juices will take over and the story will unspool just the way it needs to. Things will crop up in the writing that you never would have imagined during the brainstorm – and that’s where the beauty of it lies. Your mind will have taken all of that raw data from your reading/viewing, and all of the thinking you did while you made the brainstorm, and turned it into something real. That in itself should be scary enough!
Next time I’ll talk about familiar tropes and characters that you might want to reinvent, but I hope this post has given you some food for thought about getting started writing horror. Good luck – and do let me know how you get on!
Have you ever written a horror story, and if not, do you think you’ll give it a go?