As a member of the Grub Street team, and as a simple lover of the genre, I have read my fair share of horror stories. Over the course of the past semester, I have come to realize that many of the submissions received by Grub Street are of the horror genre or at least dark in nature. However, I have also painfully realized that many of these stories are quite similar not only in theme, but in their susceptibility to following certain tropes of the genre that turn decent stories into what I’d expect from a cheesy horror flick. Now there’s nothing wrong with a good cheesy horror flick, but it’s one thing to watch them and quite another to read them. Part of the entertainment value is lost when all that cheese gets put on paper. But enough about cheese; what am I really talking about? Gallons upon gallons of blood and gore, not caring about who’s dying, and not setting the mood. These are the common elements that I have seen many a promising story fall victim to. So what can you do to remedy these overused and underrated characteristics of horror?
Leave it to my imagination. Whether you’re reading your very first horror story or your hundredth, your imagination will always freak you out more than anything anyone can write. That’s why so many people are afraid of the dark; people let their imaginations fill in the blanks of what their senses can’t detect. In the same way, it’s often times better to allow your reader to imagine something rather than to directly perceive it. For example, if you have a mass murdering psychopath in your story, instead of telling your reader, “The man screamed as the mass-murdering psychopath stabbed him repeatedly in the chest, cracking ribs and spraying blood all over the walls,” you could say, “Screams echoed down the hall as the sound of a dull blade puncturing flesh repeated itself again and again.” While the first version gives good visuals, the second version is much more interpretive for the reader. The psychopath could be stabbing the man in the chest, stomach, throat, face, limbs… who knows? But the reader’s imagination will fill in those blanks, often providing a much more disturbing scene than what you as the writer could describe in words.
Make me care. All too often I see stories where despite whatever horrors are befalling the characters, I don’t feel anything for them. One of the most tragic failings of a horror story is to creatively harm or kill a character and get little to no emotional response from the reader. No matter what you do to your characters, your readers won’t be emotionally affected if you haven’t built a relationship between your reader and the characters. Just like in any other story, readers want characters that they can relate to in some way. If you throw a bunch of underdeveloped cannon fodder into your story, your reader will leave the story feeling indifferent about what they just read. So take your time and make an effort to build up your characters with personalities and lives that matter. Give them all strong dialogue and allow them to think. When the time comes for them to fall prey to whatever you’ve got planned for them, your reader will be in a sweat pleading for the characters’ lives.
Set the mood. Too often I see horror stories play out like any other story. It’s the day-to-day deal, where if you take out the parts where bad things happen, you just have your characters living life normally. Sometimes stories will even go on as a normal every day story until BAM! Someone just died horribly and now it’s a horror story! There’s nothing really wrong with this approach, except that I see it enough that it gets old, and if it’s not handled properly, the shock value moment turns into something that just feels ridiculous. So how can we really set the mood for a horror story without it being a dark and stormy night? Think about the type of feeling you want to evoke in your reader. If you have a mysterious creature in your story, be vague about details and environments. Better yet, throw in some inexplicable phenomenon. For example, you could have your character going about their daily business when they notice a strange odor in the air that reminds them of something they just can’t put their finger on. Or maybe the character has a pet that started acting up for no reason and then went back to normal and life went on. They never figure it out, they never reflect on it later, that’s the end of it. It might seem trivial, but it leaves the reader with a subconscious feeling of unease when small things like that go unresolved. You can also set the mood with your environment. A great way to achieve a creep factor is to have something where it shouldn’t belong. For example, your character might be walking out in the middle of the field when they happen upon a steel trap door going into the ground. They open it up and can’t see anything but darkness within. Kinda creepy, especially if they venture deep inside and start hearing noises.
Following these tips will always be helpful in bringing a story up to that next level of horror. The best thing to do while writing, though, is to think about how your reader should be feeling at each moment. The more you consider what kind of emotion you’re trying to evoke from your reader, the better you’ll be able to zero in on just the right words to write.
Grub Street Team Member
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.