For a long time I’ve been struggling with this topic. My short stories generally go in that direction whether I plan it or not, but it was attempting to turn them into novels that made me scratch my head. Mostly because I didn’t really understand what made my shorts such good horror stories. So as we all do, I went online and tried to find the information.
Fat good that did me.
The information I found was generally the same thing: write what scares you, inject fear into the page. Same ol’, same ol’. It wasn’t until I beta read for a friend of mine that it hit me. The next morning it was a slap in the face moment. I’m not sure really what the trigger was. I was making my coffee, getting ready to eat meh oatmeal, and boom. Out of nowhere, I realized it: he took my by the hand, led me into his cozy little kitchen, then like a magician triggered that oh god, no response inside.
I won’t give away his story, but I’ll use Trust Your Instincts for explanation purposes since it features a cozy little kitchen too.
The way I wrote the story was to get you all comfy cozy in this perfect sunny sweet little kitchen (his details are a bit better than mine I fully admit, haha) and then turns out? Oh the sunny sweet kitchen is a lot darker and more frightening than you realized because momma is washing blood down the drain. No, I didn’t actively think this is what I need to do, that is what I need to do – it’s just that I think when we decide on a style, our creative brain takes us into that area, as long as we trust it. Or as is my case, we are naturally drawn toward the area where we are comfortable. I’ve read and loved horror all my life so that sort of story always draws me.
But then what happens when we aren’t easily scared of the boogeyman, or we’re easily scared? Personally, certain things don’t frighten me as easy as someone else. A sound in the house doesn’t, a feeling of something creeping up on me when nothing is there. Those things don’t bother me. Sure, I may feel a bit creeped out, but real fear? Now real fear I know and understand.
But what if you don’t? How does a person explain that gut-wrenching fear? How does a person who doesn’t feel fear often, understand then how to inject fear into a page? How do they make a reader come into their world and wanna hide under those all-powerful covers to shield themselves? They are quite magical them covers.
If I told you the monster ran after me and I was afraid, you’d laugh. You’d think to yourself . . . really? That is going to make me feel fear?
Because I told you I was afraid. Because I told you what to feel. Because I took you so quickly from start to finish and there was no depth, there was no reality. I didn’t help you come into my world and truly embrace my fear as if it were your own. Whether or not we know fear, we all understand it.
Fear is primal. Fear is built into us. Fear is what guides us when we need it. Fear is what we know the moment we are in it, but outside of it we may forget.
I didn’t take you by the hand in that example above, lead you into that darkened alley, allow you to feel the cold crisp air on your skin, and guide your ears to hear that snuff I heard. The one that made me feel needles pricking my scalp or my skin bunching as the hair on the back of my neck rose. I didn’t help you to understand how my heart lurched and my bladder tightened and nearly released as the hot stale acrid stench washed over the back of my neck as if from a corpse, coming from an angle to let you know the thing stood above me from a height, not below me.
How do we take the reader by the hand and make them feel that skittery feeling just under the skin. The one that says, put the book down! But it also says, keep going!
And why do we love that so much?
Reading horror is a fear we have control over. It’s a way for us to get the adrenaline pumping while remaining in complete control.
I know that’s why I enjoy it. I enjoy that I can pick up a book, read through, and suddenly be afraid of that shadow moving along the wall. I have control of it. And to be frank, horror makes me feel good. I won’t explain that too much, but it does. I like to read it. Period. Yes, I am a horribly creepy chick, I knows it.
How do we write that into a page?
Pacing. Commas. Periods. Taking a moment that can be written as I did above, very quickly, and elongating it. Bringing out the depth of all senses and relating it to the person reading.
Take an ordinary trip from the bathroom and don’t just intensify the scene, but include a frightening experience after that normal waking up. Say . . . something at the end of the hall. Well, the character still has to use the bathroom unless we plan to kill them right away. This is horror though, we don’t do that so easy. First we take the reader achingly across the hall and those three steps become a lifetime in brilliant detail. Then we’re safe in the bathroom! Made it. Fshew. Calm down moment.
But now it’s out of the door and right back out of comfy moment. We know that moment is coming. Our skin prickles will millions of little bumps because we are at that precipice of oh god, no. So we open the bathroom door.
See what I did there? I left the reader – you – in this case on that precipice. That’s what pacing and details are about. We play with the reader as I just did you, as a reader.
Pacing for writing Horror is much the same as a Thriller. When you write a scene, you draw it out. You elongate the sentences with the use of commas, or you write a long sentence and erase all proper comma usage. Don’t increase drama and tension with words you don’t need, just to fill that page, but don’t skimp just because you’re afraid of padding.
If I write a sentence, and I want a brief pause, I insert commas, no matter how much it bugs you, and I keep taking, my time, with it.
But if I want you breathless worn out and wanna take you on a ride of your lifetime and leave you panting then I write a long senseless sentence without a pause at all that may not make sense.
Fshew, right? Take a breath, let’s move on. Okay.
I can also.
Clip the sentences.
And force you
However. If I want you to quickly jump in. And then run for your life. And feel freaked the heck out. I might punch sentences. Right in your face.
Ouch. Sorry. [rubs your nose]
Then again, I may drift you through what I’m writing, and then? Stop. And make you have to hit. the. wall.
It’s all about pacing. Commas will help. Periods will help. Proper grammar will not be your friend in this case.
How do we then make the reader want to turn on all the lights in the house?
Bring them into the story. In the explanation I mentioned above with the kitchen, I took you by the hand and I led you into the warm sunny inviting kitchen. Then you discover after I’ve talked about the wallpaper and the momma, the kids upstairs, and the breakfast, that momma is washing blood down the drain.
The trick to hand the creepy crawly feeling out to your readers is to take a normally fine situation, say a table in the hallway. Normal lines, normal color, everything is fine and normal. You take that table and highlight the strange way the leg of the table angles just so to reveal a shadow that you never noticed until you’re walking through the hallway in the dark. Describe how the shadows move and the way something can be hidden there.
I’m probably not describing it as well because editing is my strong suit and where I place details, but you get the idea. Bring out all the odd details. Mentally feel how that table has the oddest slimy sensation when you caress it as you pass. Use words like that too: slimy, vulgar, shadowy, everything you wouldn’t find in a Romance. I just broke my own rule using caress, but that makes it all the more creepy no?
Describe in sensory detail what the character smells, feels, touches, tastes, experiences, thinks. Detail the walk from the kitchen to the bedroom in unusual detail to bring out the depth in the moment. Make it take longer than just that minute walk. Make it feel as if it takes hours. Don’t be afraid to “unpack the sentence” as Chuck Palahniuk says. In his case he mentions it for not using “wondered” and “realized” in the story and instead, really draw out the scene.
That’s the best way to describe horror writing too. It’s like a roller coaster ride in many ways. First you lead the person into the calm part of the story, then shove them off the cliff and allow the adrenaline to pour through them. Then they come slowly back up. Then you shove them off again.
Invoke the senses.
And how do we take all the above and make a novel? Versus just the short story?
Simply combine a lot of those scenes (you can also say chapters) and repeat them. Create a problem for the character. Then complicate that problem. Toward the end, you solve it. But that doesn’t mean you have to resolve it. We’re writing horror after all. That is one of my favorite parts about writing scary tales. I don’t have to resolve the story. I don’t have to explain what all happened to the character and the best? It doesn’t have to be a happy ending. I can rip that carpet out from under your legs and leave you lying there on your butt.
Here, lemme help you back up.
Life isn’t always happy and as bubbly and lovey as I can be, I like the dark side. I like the shadows, the possibilities of what lurk there. Humans frighten me. Monsters under my bed don’t. That’s the beauty of horror. And if someone can really creep me out, I give them props because it ain’t so easy. Try your hand, tell me all about it. You say horror and I’ma be all up in your face.
I want to thank Daniel Donche Jr., Harrington Martin, and Ange Baker for help with this. I contacted both Ange and Harrington in the time I worked on this blog for their thoughts on this subject to ensure I had the best information. Ange is an editor, but also currently working on a horror novel. And then I know that Harrington works around this genre in some ways. With their guidance, I made sure my thoughts were aligned in the same way theirs are regarding this topic. They offered their time and I appreciate it.
Harrington’s thoughts were based on the comfort factor. Making the reader comfortable, while also making them uncomfortable (paraphrasing.)
Ange’s thoughts were based on writing ordinary items in an extraordinary light, and using pacing to benefit. He made a very distinct reference to poetry, which helped me to understand why I may understand the pacing effect easier. Poets naturally understand using paragraph size and sentence length to pace a written piece. I have to agree with that. Short paragraphs make a reader hop down the page, whereas longer passages will keep you still and make you feel like it’s going much slower. Always keep in mind too that a written page in Word is going to transcribe differently in an ebook or paperback because the size of the material. One sentence can look like a whole paragraph in ebook. So trail and error with that one.
I thank Dan for being the one to let me read the story, and inspiring this realization. Honestly I always thought he was good at writing, but he surprised me with how good this story was – also since it helped me with this. 😉 It’s been over a year of me researching this subject and finding as much as I could on it. The information was rarely specific and concrete. I’m not sure what it was about that story that did it, but I whole-heatedly appreciate him giving me that opportunity.
I encourage you to follow the three of them.