September 12, 2014

A second reviewer at Contagious Reads reviewed SUFFER THE CHILDREN and writes, “You begin to regret reading late at night, the fact that you turned the lights off … I never questioned the authenticity of his characters or their decisions, they were flawed, and they were real … I loved this book for all that it was, it was a true thrill ride that messed with my head.”

Thanks, Contagious Reads!

Click here to read the complete review.
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September 11, 2014

Good characters are absolutely vital in horror fiction. They’re the key to empathy, which is vital to project the experience of horror. Characters stand in for the reader. What they feel, the reader should feel. If a good character feels genuine terror, so will the reader.

First, we have to make sure the reader cares about what happens to him or her.

How do we do that? Author Talia Vance says, “Make your characters relatable, likable and give them a personal stake in the outcome.”

Author/Story consultant Michael Hauge identifies five ways to make a character relatable for the reader. The character should be sympathetic, funny, likable and/or powerful, and/or put in jeopardy. He says you don’t need your character to be all of these, but they should be at least two.

Your characters need to react to what’s happening. If something scary happens, but your protagonist constantly ignores it and think it’s stupid, the reader will have the same reaction. In horror stories, characters who react that way usually get some sort of comeuppance. There’s a strong sense of justice in the horror genre. People who make mistakes usually pay for them.

It’s like author Chuck Wendig says about horror: “Characters you love making choices you hate.”

Then again, watch out for overworn tropes like splitting up in a horror house. Characters who do things everybody knows from watching horror movies you shouldn’t do are less relatable–because they’re so dumb.

Major characters will have a character arc. They should grow during the story and by its end become different people than they were. The protagonist’s arc typically mirrors the plot structure—average guy, guy reacts to horror, guy fights back, guy commits everything to victory—but can be enriched with additional layers. A guy who hates women ends up back in love with his wife. A woman who’s afraid of death conquers that fear after seeing firsthand evidence of an afterlife. And so on.

I hope you enjoyed this series on writing horror and found it useful. One day, you’ll hear these words: “Your book gave me a nightmare.”

Believe me, for a horror writer, this is music to one’s ears!

Remember, this is fun. Make it fun for you, make it fun for the reader. Tell a good story with characters we care about facing a horror element that is truly scary. Do that, and there it is, you’re a horror writer.
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September 10, 2014

Now we’re ready to get past the idea and into nuts and bolts. Which means plot and characters. Let’s start with plot.

Plot begins with the basic three-act structure. We have the normal, the horror element changes everything, and then we have the new normal. Setup, confrontation and resolution.

A family moves into a new house to make a fresh start. The town is terrorized by a werewolf, which the family must fight to survive. The family defeats the werewolf, and the town is freed from ancient curse.

Beginnings are everything. People need to be grabbed right from the getgo. In the electronic age, many people buy according to the Kindle sample, and they’ll even review your book based on that sample. Since the first part of the book will deal with the normal, with a significant number of pages occurring before we get to the first plot point where everything changes, we might do some foreshadowing using some type of inciting incident. Start things off with a bang. In our werewolf example, we might start our story with the previous owner of the house being hunted and ripped to shreds in the woods behind his house. Later on, the family will find the body. This sets up the threat and lets us know that the family moving in is in for horror.

And that keeps us turning pages. The human brain is wired with a strong desire to know what happens next. But we have to care what happens next. That requires hinting at the horror element and its threat early in the story through an inciting incident; introducing and maintaining conflict and tension; and giving us characters we care about. Characters who will be put outside their comfort zone but for the most part, always have hope.

The building blocks of plot and pacing are scenes. Each scene must include either conflict (protagonist struggles against an antagonistic force) or a reveal (give the reader information, a puzzle piece that makes the overall picture clearer). There are plenty of good writing books that elaborate on this and provide much more, so I won’t go further than that.

Endings are important too. If you end a story well, the book will haunt them long after they close its covers. Importantly, they’ll be more likely to tell their friends about the book, which can generate sales. Resolve the conflict, tie up the loose ends and maybe leave an open question, something for them to imagine or think about.

So in our werewolf example, we might end the story with Dad concealing a bite. The curse lives on. That may seem predictable, so maybe they’re all hiding a bite. The next full moon, the entire family will be agonizing over whether they’ll hurt the others, and find out they’ll be hunting together as pack.

Wait a minute. Three acts, you say?

At 80,000 words, that’s say 20,000 words for the setup, 40,0000 for the confrontation, 20,000 for the resolution. A lot of writers get stuck in that middle ground. In desperation, some commit one of two sins. They either give up the book and start another, or they drop in a lot of filler—people talking, nothing much happening, or the very predictable happening—to get to the climax.

Writers should understand the three-act structure has a lot of discrete steps, and following these steps is key to driving the story along. One of the best books on writing I’ve read is Larry Brooks’ STORY ENGINEERING. He breaks the novel down to four acts. The first 25% is the inciting incident that foreshadows the central conflict plus introduction to the normal. It ends with a climax—an event, a spoken word, a thought, something—that changes everything. In a horror novel, this is typically where the horror element reveals itself as a threat. The next 25% of the book is the hero reacting to that event. So if our hero visits a haunted house on a dare (normal) and sees a ghost (first plot point), the next 25% of the book will be our hero running like hell and trying to escape the house. Then, at the midpoint, another big thing happens. Say our hero finds a book that can banish the evil presence in the house. For the third 25% of the book, our hero is empowered and now goes on the attack. But unsuccessfully; it looks like he or she’s going to lose. At the second plotpoint, at about 75% into the story, another big thing happens, and our hero rises against terrible adversity and goes all in to win or die trying.

The pacing should build tension throughout. Remember, a good horror story requires clear and rising stakes. Build tension by establishing the horror element and through foreshadowing.

Note you can release a little tension at key points, however, with a few red herrings. For example, our family hears thrashing in the bushes and thinks it’s the werewolf. Instead, it’s Rags, the family dog, whom we thought lost in a previous chapter. Catharsis and relief at seeing a family pet returned (instead of a werewolf come to kill them) release some of the tension while keeping the reader on his or her toes.

Should the plot flow naturally from the keyboard or be outlined in advance? Outlining is generally recommended to clearly articulate the overall plot arc(s) at a minimum. I also find it ideally suited to stories where you want perfectly timed reveals. Some writers outline very strictly, others build a loose frame around which they’ll build their story on the fly. As with all things, it pays to plan ahead.

Check back tomorrow for the last part of this series on horror writing. In Part 4, we’re going to get to that part of the story that doesn’t scare us directly but rather allows us to feel the chills—characterization.

September 9, 2014

Let’s talk about the fun stuff. The horror element.

Make people face the fantastic with high stakes, and you’ve got the setup for a thriller. Make the fantastic horrifying, and you’ve got horror. Make the horror impose a constant threat of death, and you’ve got survival horror. Make the element a ghost, demon, etc., and you’ve got supernatural horror. Make the horrifying element a global threat, and you’ve got apocalyptic horror. Make the horror something that’s largely internalized (sometimes with an unreliable narrator), and you’ve got psychological horror. Make the horror extremely violent and explicit, and you’ve got splatterpunk.

If you’re writing horror, horror should beat at the heart of your story. When starting your work, ask yourself, is your story in its heart a story with horror, or a horror story? Horror stories tend to be more powerful, though stories with horror tend to have broader appeal.

The key here is: What are you trying to say?

The next question: What is the nature of your horror element?

Author Stephen King identified three type of horror: the Horror, the Gross-out and the Terror. Below is my own riff on his descriptions.

The Horror: Think, “Oh God, that’s a spider the size of a dog!” You see a monster, something grabs you, you’re confronted by something unnatural. In this case, the threat is defined and is looming. The character knows what the horror element is and that it’s going to hurt him or her in some way.

The Gross-Out: Think, “Oh God, that’s a severed head!” A possessed girl pukes green pea soup, slime pours on your face after the lights go out, blood and guts splatter after the werewolf hunts down its prey. In this case, the threat may be defined or undefined but is realized. The character sees the effects of the horror element but may not know what it is yet.

The Terror: Think, “Oh God, that’s a child signing inside the wall.” It’s that chill you get when the man says to the kid, “You couldn’t have been talking to Sara Jenkins. She’s been dead since 1981.” In this case, the threat is both undefined and impending. King calls this the worst of the three types of horror, and he’s right, becuse the unknown is scarier than the known. That’s where chills come from.

It’s my personal belief, though, that the Terror is kind of like the proverbial gun on the mantle in the first act. By the third act, it must go off. At some point, the threat should be realized. The Terror should become Horror and/or Gross-Out. Otherwise, it may stop being terrifying.

So what should the actual horror element be? Ghost? Monster? Virus? Serial killer?

But wait. Ghost? Serial killer? Aren’t these horror elements, well, overdone?

Horror has been done to death, for sure. But there’s plenty of room for originality even with familiar tropes. The trick is if you’re going to use a familiar trope such as a vampire or werewolf, make it your own. Find your voice: What scares you? And remember that in the end, the horror element isn’t as important as how your characters react to it. So make it personal for your hero.

You write a story about a woman who moves into a new house. She meets the neighbor, who strikes her as misanthropic. Soon after, she hears banging noises, things break, and other creepy incidents happen. This goes on, and she relives her own horror being bullied in high school. It’s like that all over again. The hurt, the feelings of being powerless. She conquers those fears by inviting her neighbor to her house, where she confronts him about what’s been happening. They end up shouting at each other. In a feverish state reliving the horrors of her severe bullying, she reaches for a weapon and threatens with it. Then they hear a noise … a loud bang.

The doors lock. The window shutters slam shut.

The house, the real bully, is going to try to kill them. The story possibilities unfold from here. Will these neighbors, who hate each other by this point (not to mention she’s just physically threatened him), work together or against each other? What will the house do to them? How will they get out?

The result is what is a very typical horror element trope—the haunted house—and gives it a twist, makes it fresh. The rest is up to great characterization and good writing.

This leads us to the idea of operating theme for your story. One of my takeaways from the World Horror Convention in 2013 was a panelist saying, “When I pitch a story, I always describe its nonfiction theme.” I thought that was brilliant advice.

Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD is an apocalyptic story about a father and son’s struggle to survive an endless apocalyptic winter. But the story is really about a father’s love for his son. Can the father protect his son, including his innocence?

HANDING THE UNDEAD by John Ajvide Lindqvist is a zombie story in which the dead rise, but they’re not hostile. The story is really about the love between the living and those they’ve lost. Can the living, once they get the dead back, let them go?

My own novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN is a vampire story about a disease that requires the world’s children to consume human blood in order to stay alive. But it’s really about the bond parents have for their kids and how far parents will go for them. As the blood supply wanes, the only source left will be each other. How far will they go for love?

Start with that “what if.” What is a virus turned people into homicidal maniacs? What if a race of creatures lived deep in the earth and was now emerging? What if a doomsday cult opened a portal for a Lovecraftian creature that wants to grant them their wish? What if a group of urban explorers ends up trapped in an abandoned insane asylum?

The idea will an element capable of horror. It will have clear stakes, rising stakes, delivered with a punch. It will ensnare characters with whom we can empathize. And it will be delivered fresh.

Check back tomorrow for Part 3, where we’ll talk about plot.

September 8, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to give a presentation at the When Words Collide writers’ conference in Calgary, Alberta. The topic? How to scare people with words.

Specifically, how to write a horror novel.

When I tell people I write horror, I sometimes get a funny look. See, horror writers are the serial killers of the fiction world. People say, “He’s such a nice, mild-mannered guy. I lived next to him for years. I never suspected he wrote horror.”

Why do I write it? It’s FUN. That, and my imagination can really soar. Good horror breaks boundaries, makes us uncomfortable, asks disturbing questions. It’s writing at the edge of human nature. You get to probe some pretty dark territory and then flush it all out of your head.

Maybe that’s why horror writers are so nice. In the fiction world, the nice, happy horror writer is something of a stereotype. As an attendee of the World Horror Convention, the annual meeting of the Horror Writers Association, over the past few years, I can personally attest the stereotype is fairly true.

So that’s why I’m writing it. What’s in it for the reader?

Horror is “painful and intense fear, dread or dismay” (Websters). Horor fiction “scares or startles readers by inducing feelings of horror or terror” (Wikipedia).

The first question that should leap to your mind is, “Why would anybody want to read THAT?”

Experts have theories as to why people are attracted to horror in movies and fiction. Dr. Frank Farley, psychologist at Temple University, says horror media allow people to satisfy their curiosity about and fascination with the bizarre, and make sense of it. Think people rubbernecking a car crash.

Dr. Glenn Sparks says that people have a basic need to seek situations outside their comfort zone. Professor Emeritus Stuart Fischoff points out that people want to face danger and survive the encounter (catharsis), the same impulse that puts people on rollercoasters. He adds that people who seek out horror tend to like exciting experiences.

The psychiological changes that occur while consuming good horror media include an adrenaline rush, pounding heart, sweaty hands. Says Farley, “There’s almost nothing else, including sex, that can match it in terms of the incredible sensory experience the body is put through.”

A quote attributed to author Stephen King puts it simply: “Terror [is] the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.”

That’s powerful stuff and a testament to the magic of reading. How do we bottle that in a book?

This series of articles isn’t meant to teach you how to be a writer. The purpose of this article is to tell you, as a writer, the basics of becoming a horror writer—from one writer’s point of view.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2. In Part 2, we’ll explore the black heart of the horror novel, the horror element.