A serious misconception about horror suggests that it needs to be disgusting. No, not just disgusting, that it needs to be “splatterporn”. Now, I won’t lie to you. I’ve written my fair share of disgusting shit since I started writing. In 9th grade, I wrote a story for my free write assignment about a deranged serial killer student who tortures, mutilates, and eats a cheerleader. In 2013, I wrote a horror that takes place in Hell, where torturous things and disgusting visuals (might be) is commonplace. I never really went over the line just to disgust people, though. I’m talking about authors who go straight for the nasty stuff without regard to their plot or story. In the first story of mine that I mentioned, I explored the inner workings of a serial killer from the first person perspective, and in the second, well, I can’t say because it would ruin the story.
Anyway, I’ll avoid naming names, but I’ll point out that self-published authors are the worst offenders because they can pretty much publish whatever they want regardless if it’s good or not. I love reading new books by fresh writers and giving them honest feedback, and it always blows my mind when an author writes a horror novel like they just stepped out of a Saw movie.
So, how exactly are you supposed to write horror if you don’t go all James Wan on your book? Well, you approach it as you approach any horror. To scare the shit out of your reader.
First, let’s look at the definition of horror as Merriam-Webster defines it:
\ˈhȯr-ər, ˈhär-\: the quality of something that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock : the horrible or shocking quality or character of something.
I know, I know. Some of you are shaking your heads and saying that disgusting stuff is shocking and dreadful! I know it is, but that’s not all horror is, either. There are many elements to it.
The first element you need is fear. In my opinion, without fear, you don’t have horror. If your main character is feeling fear, you need your reader to feel that fear, too. Maybe not to the point that they, too, are afraid (though big bonus points if you can scare the bajeezus out of them for realsies), but at least make them uncomfortable. Get them to a point where what’s happening in the story is so emotionally intense that if the reader were sitting in a dark room (presumably on their kindle or with a book light), then they’d start to sweat a little wondering what’s skulking around near them in the darkness.
The next element listed is dread. Have you ever thought about what dread is? It’s a fear that something may or may not happen. Dread should be normal business for most authors since you’ll always dread something in a story. Will the main character’s husband find out if she’s been cheating on his with Mr. Hunk? Will that monster smell the MC hiding inside the closet? Will the world collapse if the World-Destructor-Inator goes off before the Perry can stop it? Your reader should always be dreading that something will happen; it just depends on the situation that makes it horror.
The final element is shock. The closest definition of shock isn’t to electrify someone with high voltages but rather to disturb someone. What? Okay, okay, I know… I hear some of those marbles rolling around your heads as you shake them at me again. Yes, gross disgusting things disturb people, but they don’t disturb people on an intellectual level. There’s a huge difference.
When you write about character ‘A’ doing (insert nasty shit here) to character ‘B’, then you’re only scratching the surface of disturbing the reader. Yeah, it might be incredible disgusting, but to really disturb your reader and get under their skin, you have to really mess with their mind. You have to stick your hand right into their skull and start beating their brains around until they’re whimpering in the corner screaming for you to stop.
How do you do this? By carefully writing your horror to
- make the reader feel uneasy about how things should progress,
- take what they think they know and twist the hell out of it,
- take the world of things that they know and twist them so they question their own reality, and
- use all of that as a catalyst to reveal something they’ll be thinking about long after they close your book.
Once you’ve done those things, you can write about all the nastiness you want, assuming you have a plot that really requires it, that is. Never throw nasty in just to shock people, because although some people might like it, the vast majority of readers will see right through it as weak writing.
Do you write horror? How do you handle it differently? Let me know in the comments below or find me on Twitter or Facebook to scream at me about it!