I wanted to learn about writing scary stuff, so I read some horror books friends had recommended.
After all, the books that scare people exist; why not read them to see how it’s done?
And hey, we do have a horror story writing contest going on.
When I went to read the scary books and learn from them how to write a scary book, it was not quite as easy as I thought it’d be.
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With some books, I screwed up. Like The Shining. I’d seen the movie a zillion times, and read the book a long time ago, but I thought if I picked it up again, I’d see the scary stuff and learn from it. Specifically, I thought I’d read it, pay attention to when I was getting scared, and then examine the story to see what had transpired to get me to that state.
This is called reading with intention. For example, you read a novel for a different reason than you read an owner’s manual. You read the newspaper to be informed, but you read a textbook to learn – a different version of being informed.
Reading scary books to enjoy them and enjoy being scared – and then dissecting the situation to see why I was scared and how it had been done, what was involved – that’s what I think is meant by the advice, “If you want to write, read.”
Odds are, someone else has done what you’re trying to do, and like you might watch Babe Ruth to learn how to hit a home run in baseball, or study The Beatles to get ideas of how a song should be structured for most listeners, you could also see and understand the steps in building a scary story – or any story, for that matter.
And my goal was horror.
I wanted to learn how to scare readers.
That’s different from how a movie does it, by the way. A movie can have something jump out from nowhere and say, “Boo!” That doesn’t work in writing.
Or does it? Could it? Had it?
That’s what I wanted to know.
I’d done a little of this scary business in An Angel On Her Shoulder, and a little more in The Water Castle, an as-yet unreleased novel from which I used a sample chapter in last year’s scary anthology The Box Under The Bed. (The chapter was a bonus for eBook preorder buyers and paperback readers, and is no longer in the eBook version.)
In it, I went deep in a certain scene, trying to scare readers.
That’s where, between those two stories and the feedback my beta readers and critique partners gave me,
I learned that there were things that had to be present to pull “scary” off.
Steps that “sad” didn’t need.
One thing I discovered by mistake as I went to read The Shining – scary isn’t as scary when you know what’s coming. I did that with The Shining. A lot. I already knew the story too well, was often looking forward to my favorite parts and not always appreciating the other eerie things. Totally my bad, but I’m human. So although I enjoyed most of it (King has a tendency to go on and on about stuff at times), it wasn’t gonna be the right vessel for this task. I simply wasn’t going to be scared by stuff I knew was coming.
In The Box Under The Bed, I also included a chapter from An Angel On Her Shoulder which I called “The Death Of Mrs. Billen” for the anthology. It was billed as a scary story – and rightly so. That was its goal. But I wasn’t originally sure how it was going to do what it ultimately did.
I let Angel sit for over a year before going back and editing it for publication in 2017.
During that time, I added things and deleted things, but I mainly enhanced things. I put emotion in and I amplified it where it was supposed to be scary. Readers and movie watchers don’t want everyday life, I reasoned; they want drama – and if so, they occasionally want over the top drama. Drama that manifests itself in a raging, full blown, scared out of their mind scene.
It was a process, and it worked – but Angel is a paranormal thriller with a few scary or uncomfortable spots. It wasn’t full on horror, neither is The Water Castle.
But in writing them, I felt I’d touched on what the trick to doing scary was.
When I read Pet Semetary, to prove my hypothesis, I screwed up again. I’d wanted recommendations for scary stuff a while back, and Pet Semetary was recommended. But since I didn’t have time then to indulge myself in this horror education, I read a Wikipedia plot summary – and by doing that, again removed the surprise element! You’d think I’d learn!
Eventually, I did. When friends told me about the Stephen King novel It, I purposely didn’t read or learn anything in advance about the story. I knew there was a clown, and that was about all. Maybe the clown was in the sewer, but I couldn’t say for sure. And being a King story, it’d probably be a killer clown. So okay, I knew that much.
I saw some stuff in It that was emulatable.
In the first five pages he showed me something I wasn’t expecting. Not scary, although there was a scary moment, but the way he got me to care about the character. There, in that, and again later, I learned or confirmed what I had been thinking about how to lay out the setup to a scary scene – which I already suspected was correct from the CP feedback in Angel and TWC.
Also, between The Shining and It and Pet Semetary, I learned a few things that I think are forming my understanding of how to write horror. I don’t profess to be a master yet, but storytelling has some methods that work in all stories, and since I can make people laugh or cry with my prose, I ought to be able to use the same styles of setting things up – that is, knowing I need to set things up so a situation will be funny, and knowing I need to set a situation up so it’ll be sad – therefore setting up a situation to scare my reader.
And like telling a joke, if you have to explain it, it isn’t funny.
Scary works in a similar fashion.
But here, I’ve put the basic pieces together.
I think biggest part of horror is:
(A) the gruesome idea (scary clown that kills kids)
(B) giving it life (put killer clown in a story)
Then, making it scary, to the extent possible, by:
(C) Using words and paragraph structure to surprise, even misusing certain words for effect (try to have the scary stuff jump out at a reader)
(D) Having the character’s reaction help do the scaring (seeing someone fight off the scary clown while scared out of their wits = more scary)
(E) and holding the reader in the moment of gruesomeness (have the fight last a while)
This is what I see.
I’m not pretending that’s easy, or common, but it’s doable. I’m not even saying I explained the basics here very well, but I do feel as though I understand them at this point. Being able to explain it better to you will come in time, as it always does.
To me, scary and horror are a different kind of layering. Instead of adding emotion to your first draft to get a reader immersed in the story, you’re adding additional reactions and heightening the character’s response to what he/she sees, feels, expresses, demonstrates outwardly – and doing so in a very “show not tell” way – so the reader believes the character believes the scary thing is real and happening.
The reader doesn’t have to believe in monsters.
The reader has to believe the character believes in monsters.
And at certain moments, that the monster is definitely going to eat/kill/seriously harm/etc., that character.
In story writing, having the idea is always the easy part. With horror, getting the idea might not be that that easy. But once attained, putting it down, making it identifiable to a reader, and making them scared, that’s a methodology that can be learned. There are steps. Not a formula of “do this and then do that = scared reader,” but knowing things have to happen in an order to build to your scary moment – or it won’t quite get there.
I’ve seen examples, and I’ve identified the tools.
Now, like Dr. Frankenstein, we have to assemble them into our scary monsters.
Wanna join the fun? Enter your writing in our scary writing contest. Over $400 in prizes! Click HERE for details.