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.