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How to write horror?

scarpelius

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Is there anything special to add to a story to make it horror? Besides mindless killing (blood and gore) and disgusting monsters which I really don't like.
What are the expectations of a horror story?

It was suggested to me in my last reading session, to try to write horror stories, but I have little to none experience with the genre.
I haven't seen any movie (I usually change the channel) and I think I've read only two books which were horror, Djin and another one from Graham Masterson.
 

Karn's Return

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Atmosphere is extremely important with horror, but setting that up through words can be pretty difficult. Don't over-reach; drop hints here and there to set up the proper setting. But also being able to keep it exciting enough to keep a reader to the end...it's perhaps a bigger combination of various aspects than I would say non-horrific sci fi or fantasy would be. I would suggest looking to those like Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, and various others to find inspiration on how to write one.

That said, I'm not a great horror author. I haven't actually really written anything that could be considered horror genre for a long time. I might have put something down in a challenge here with my old account, but, I can't remember.
 

IntoTheBlack

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Hello,

HP Lovecraft stories are free on the internet and exceptionally good. Though do remember they were intended for magazine publication. More modern authors such as Stephen King and James Herbert all seem too familiar with Lovecraft.

I agree with @Karn's Return its all about atmosphere, any story that isolates someone in an unfamiliar place is a really good start, add low lighting and strange noises - and now I am scared wondering if I saw the curtains twitch :eek:. However not all horror follows this method. If you don't like nasty creatures, try humans :) they do some horrendous things to each other, one of the best theaters for that would be war, historical time unimportant so you can choose - or make your own up.

Currently I am writing about Vampires in Space, its not something I feel has been covered well in modern times and I am of course adding my own twists. Lovecraft was definitely an inspiration as is Brian Lumley, Tom Holland etc..

There was a horror film made years ago (Like 70's) it was about a town that was shrouded in a fog, almost a Cotswold style town. The fog let you in but would not let you leave and the inhabitants were all ghoul like creatures. The preyed on the MC and his companion. It scared me to death, was the dialogue amazing, no. Were the ghoul's convincing...not really, was I drunk and scared to go to bed? Oh yes!

If you want to get technical you could look at people such as Darren Brown who use subtle clues in their shows to throw the audience into a particular direction. Simple but has to be well placed, very consistent. In film when Hollywood tries this they almost always screw it up. Japanese horror films lean towards sound which is hard to replicate with the written word, but not impossible if you want a challenge.

If you want cheerful horror (If there is such a thing) read the John Wyndham stories like the The Midwich Cuckoos, Day of the Triffids, The Karaken Wakes and ‎The Chrysalids. All timeless classics but my favorite was 'Trouble with Lichen'.

Either way I hope this helps.

Andy
 

Steve Harrison

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I think it's important to get inside your readers' heads and exploit their worst fears. That could be a painful death, claustrophobia, torture, darkness, mental illness, facing something or someone they are trying to forget or avoid, or the many other things that people do not want to think about in real life. You put them in a place they don't want to be, but fill them with morbid curiosity to compel them to keep going.

It's not so different than when you want readers to feel warm and fuzzy (or anything else); when you press the right buttons people respond.

I wrote a horror feature screenplay a few years (alas, still unsold) which exploited my own fears of pain and captivity, which was a bit too close to the bone and caused me a few sleepless nights. And I haven’t written any horror since.

For reading, I would recommend early Stephen King novels, particularly Pet Semetary, and Heart-Shaped Box by his son, Joe Hill. I had to read those in daylight hours. I’m also a fan of British gory horror writer James Herbert, who wrote The Fog, which I think @IntoTheBlack referred to above. You also can’t go past William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist for sheer terror!
 

Brian G Turner

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I think I've read only two books which were horror
Something tells me that if you want to better understand horror you might want to read around the horror genre a little more. :)

We have a book section dedicated to horror, which may be of help: Horror
 

scarpelius

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Something tells me that if you want to better understand horror you might want to read around the horror genre a little more. :)

We have a book section dedicated to horror, which may be of help: Horror
True, I thought of that first thing, it is the best thing to do. But these days I don't have the time to sit down and enjoy a book. I promise I will, as soon as I get enough free time.
I like the suggestion to build the atmosphere. Introduce the reader in a normal world and gradually add disruptive elements, warning flags, facts of little consequence at the moment.
As for "Don’t be afraid to hit hard. ", don't worry @Jo Zebedee that will be the easiest part :). A bit harder will be to make the reader to love them before I throw them to piranha. Or monsters. Or elements of the nature. Or simply behead them by a bridge on a speeding train.
 

Toby Frost

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Building the atmosphere is very important. To my mind, it's vital that the audience is invested with the characters: they're either likeable or interesting enough for you to care if they die or not. I think it was Dean Koontz who said that writing a horror novel that was pure horror was like playing music on a quarter of the keyboard.

Actually, it might be worth looking at Stephen King's Danse Macabre and How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction by J.N. Williamson, both of which were written when horror was a much bigger-selling genre. There are also plenty of books that analyse classic horror films such as Alien and The Shining, although of course films do work somewhat differently to books.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
As for "Don’t be afraid to hit hard. ", don't worry @Jo Zebedee that will be the easiest part :). A bit harder will be to make the reader to love them before I throw them to piranha. Or monsters. Or elements of the nature. Or simply behead them by a bridge on a speeding train.
By hitting hard, I don't mean what you DO to them, but HOW you do it. It's easy to think horror is all about the what-happens when it's not. So, for instance, I have a few scenes of torture that have stuck in my readers' minds, apparently. But, really, they're not that hard hitting in terms of what happens to the character. I've read much, much worse happen to characters in books. The reason they're so hard hitting are multiple:

1. Closeness of point of view. We're in the victim's head for much of it, and in another witnesses' head for the rest of it, one with a deep conscience. There's no escape. Which means there's no need to hit hard. In fact, the worst scenes I took out cos it had gone quite far enough.
2. Empathy with the character. The reader knows him very well. They've followed his path through the book. We don't expect our heroes to be the ones destroyed - even in horror, we rarely stick with the victim-being-the-hero (I'm happy to be challenged on that one as I think it's a really interesting thing to explore - how often the hero is the real victim, not a pseudo-one to face their ordeal-to-make-them-a-hero) - so we have safe buy in that then gets ripped apart.
3. The readers' own mind. Much worse did happen to this character. I know it, and the reader knows it. They've been shown it in different hints - in dreams, in flashbacks, in intimate conversations where the worst is revealed but never shown. Here's the thing: there is nothing you can show a reader that is more frightening than their own imagination. For some reason, mutations and mutated people really trigger anxiety in me. All it takes is a hint of that happening and I'm out of there, and I have a pretty strong stomach for most thing.
4. Outcomes. Harebrain betaed this book for me, many years ago, and he said I had to nail the depiction of the character after the awful events - by showing, and showing well - in order for their impact to really work. He was right.

So, when I say hit them hard it's not about what you do. It might actually be more about what you don't do, and I think you might do. Or, indeed, how you tell us what you have done and what it does to the character.
 

sknox

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It's worth knowing when you are writing suspense, when it's horror, and when it's a gore-fest. Each has its place.

I'll second (twelfth?) on atmosphere, but to me horror is mainly about seeing through someone's eyes. It's how that particular person in that particular moment reacts to whatever is happening. And that reaction doesn't necessarily have to be fear and panic. One of my favorite chills came from a nasty little short story by Lord Dunsany called "Two Bottles of Relish." The revulsion (there's another emotion for you) felt by the detectives is genuine, though always tempered by the mystery. When the story delivers the punch line (a classic of last-line reveal), Dunsany doesn't bother to show us how the detective reacts. He swings it straight at the reader.

I also twelfth the recommendation to read and no excuses accepted. Not because reading will teach you anything in particular. Maybe it does for other people, but it never has for me, except for sudden, unexpected insights into a technique that I admire but wouldn't try to emulate.

The benefit of constant reading is of a different sort. It's subliminal, regenerative. We read in the same way a musician is always listening to music. Words are the ocean in which we swim. A person can learn to speak another language, but to do so with any fluency they must also *hear* the other language. Reading is our version of listening, so that when our turn comes to speak, we can at least hope for eloquence while striving for clarity. You don't have to read horror, though it's a dialect worth learning. But not to read at all? A mistake.
 

M. Robert Gibson

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Can I throw another name into the 'one to read' list? I'm going to anyway. Ramsay Campbell. Another heavily influenced by Lovecraft.

One of his passages has always stuck with me. I think it is in Ancient Images. I actually had butterflies in the stomach as I read it, worried for the character. :eek:
 

Karn's Return

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Also, unless I missed it, I would put in a recommendation for Harlan Ellison as well here, though, like Bradbury, he combined with science fiction most of the time I believe.
 

tinkerdan

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My limited experience in Horror novels as a reader has me warning against this:

The long extensive back-story and biography of a character that gets you so interested in them you think you will love the story only to find out two paragraphs later that they are dead.

This leads to a couple of things:
One is, immense disappointment.
The other, more important, is that the next bio has you saying (oh god!).

Lastly by at most the fifth such; accounts for why the book is now in the trash can.

Yes, I have probably read some of the worst of that genre and they don't all do this.
 

MikeAnderson

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Psychology is huge in writing good horror. I've noticed often in a quality horror movie or novel the victim often suffers more during the pursuit than the kill. Anticipation of death is worse than death. One has to really beat in the point of terror and hopelessness characters suffer in their ordeal. Otherwise, it's just mindless gore and pointless violence. You know...like an Eli Roth movie!:p
 
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