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Month: October 2020

Writing HORROR

Put up some coffee and grab a notebook.

You’ll need both to tackle this 8500 word article, but if you have the courage to do it, you’ll be writing some of the best horror you’ve ever written in your life.

Horror covers a lot of territory and can be broken down into a number of subgenres, each with distinct considerations. I have a passion for most of them, but I’m not going to try and tackle all of them here.

For the focus of this article, we’re going to discuss what I consider the quintessential horror story, which stems not from the origin of horror itself, not from Walpole, Shelly or Poe (all of whom are profound in their influence), but from Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Carpenter; primarily stories from the 70’s & 80’s that directly gave birth to horror as an industry we recognize today.

Horror is such a fundamental part of being human (chew on that for a while), we all know what it is, but sometimes it’s a bit hard to articulate into words. The most commonly held definition of horror is that it’s story that scares or elicits a sense of dread.

While both true, I expect a little more from horror fiction, I think it’s deserved it as a genre, and like to define it as;

Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.

Notice I did not simply say, “Expectation of a worst case scenario.” If it’s simply a worst case scenario, we know or presume what that scenario is… if it’s an UNIMAGINABLE worst case scenario, that means we as readers, recognize that we don’t know what it is. That the scenario about to unravel before us, while clearly bad, is beyond anything we can expect.

This expectation of the unexpected is where true horror lives.

Genuine Horror always surprises us, subverting and exceeding our expectations far more than we could have imagined.

In other words, we know going in, the vampire story is going to have vampires drinking peoples’ blood, and the zombie story will have lots of zombies being shot in their heads and burned alive (well undead), but we expect that these things are going to happen in a horrific manner we haven’t seen before.

After all, nothing is ever quite as horrific once it’s been seen.

It is the fiction that breaks beyond what we expect, that enters new territory, that truly terrifies us.

Which coincidentally, is why so many works of horror fiction fall flat, because they simply never go beyond what we assume is coming in one way or another… or have simply seen many times before.

Hold these truths tight when you develop the core concept to your story.

Either innovate with something completely new, OR, if you go down a familiar path, bring a fresh new take on it. Doing the same that’s been done before, in horror, is the fast track to an ineffective forgettable story.

 

Fear

The king emotion of the Horror story, of course, is fear.

You may find it valuable for your horror writing to understand why readers find fear so alluring. We all know fear is a primal, maybe THE MOST primal emotion of them all… but why are we so drawn to it in fiction (well, at least some of us, my girlfriend hates horror flicks–it’s something I still cope with daily.)

Back on point.

Personally, I believe that human existence has always existed intimately with danger. For most of our species’ history, there were surely more questions than answers to much of this danger. So unexpected death and the unknown (to which we use our imagination to somehow make sense of things) are hardwired into the human condition.

Today, most of us live fairly safe lives, under the impression that humanity has a lot of, if not most of, the answers.

Again this is only my personal interpretation on the subject here; but I think this disconnect leaves us with a macabre sense that something is lacking or missing from our lives.

Of course, nobody I know on Facebook, wants to be eaten by a large predator… And I’d guess throughout all of human history, the folks who did get eaten by large predators, were pretty upset about it.

But the point is, by exposing ourselves to this missing element, perhaps it helps us feel “more complete.” I think Nine Inch Nails might have said it best; “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…”

Taking a journey into horror fiction presents one other very important element on a fundamentally psychological level.

Only by facing fear, do we find courage.

We can tell others and ourselves all day long how courageous we are, but until we’re actually tested and live through something, it’s all talk.

So not only do horror stories give us a connection to a dangerous horrific side of life, most of us are no longer attached to, but it gives us a chance to prove we have the courage to face that dangerous horrific part of life… and survive.

In my travels, I’ve found that horror fans are always more adventurous, willing to try new things, accepting of challenges, and at the end of the day, some of the most courageous people I know.

Imagine that?

We can’t proceed any further without mentioning the second emotion closely tied to the Horror genre;

Disgust

Since disgust often travels hand-in-hand with Fear when it comes to horror, I refer to it as the Queen emotion of the Horror story.

Disgust is more closely associated with anger than fear.

Disgust supports our macabre sense of Fear as we discussed above, in the sense that by seeing it unfold before us, we are immediately reminded of our appreciation for our safe lives.

“Ok, danger, death, and unknown… I see you… and, now that I think about it… I’m good. Sitting behind a computer desk all day not getting my head smashed like a rotten grape, yeah this life is fine.”

Disgust removes any romantic element of death.

As disgust triggers closer to anger, when we are totally disgusted, we want it to stop with more urgency. That is to say, if you read a slasher story, and every time the killer killed someone the writing cut away and left out the gory descriptions, you might grow a little distant or indifferent… but when you see and experience the grotesquerie first-hand, an urgency develops for it (and by proxy, the source responsible for it) to be stopped.

While torture porn, splatter films, and hard-core gore stories are always thrown in the horror genre, I would make an argument that disgust alone does not make a horror story. While disgust is potent, useful, and supportive, fear makes horror. Period.

Alright campers, we’ve got a fundamental understanding of what horror is and the underlying emotions that control it.

Sharpen up the machetes; grab your crucifix and let’s breakdown the essential elements into writing stories that will scare the shit out of your readers.

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Writing DRAMA

In Defining Genre, we already defined the parent genre, Drama as;

  • more serious in tone
  • focusing on character arc development and theme
  • digging deep into the humanity behind the story
  • encompassing not one primary human emotion (as with other genres), but many, or all of them.

In Getting Drama on Point, I gave some practical general tips in establishing drama in any written work. Today, in this first article on the “workings of genre”, we’re going to look more at depth at the parent genre.

Before we get started, let’s digress for a moment;

Character Driven vs. Plot Driven

Read a dozen different blogs on this topic, and you’ll get a dozen different answers on this. Some of them a bit more off than others. The truth is, many folks make it more complicated than it needs to be. After all the answer is literally right in the title.

Here’s the crux of it;

Character driven is just how it sounds, the story is literally, driven by the characters… and when we say the characters, we primarily mean the main character. More specifically, the main character(s) are more often the catalyst for their own problems/obstacles in the story. (The external manifests from their internal.)

Marky Marks Gambler movie is a perfect example that comes to mind. The dude is a gambling addict and as soon as he gets money, he runs to the casino and gambles it all away. When he meets the love interest in the story, his addiction takes priority, he puts it ahead of the girl, and creates a further mess of things. At every turn, his own personal issues manifest into the major problems/obstacles/events of the story.

Contrast this to plot driven, where the source of problems/obstacles are more often initiated outside the realm of the main character’s influence. (The external manifests from the external.)

When Luke is chilling on Tatooine, he’s got nothing to do with Vader capturing Leia. In fact, we can go further back, and say, Luke had nothing to do with being born as Vader’s son. These external problems/obstacles/events arrive irregardless of the problems Luke faces as a person.

So in a character driven story, the character makes a mess of things, then has to deal with his mess. In a plot driven story, life makes a mess of things and the character has to deal with the mess. Notice there is always a mess… and we get to see the character’s internal struggle whichever way conflict arises.

In both of the definitions, I specifically use the term “more often” because the truth is much of fiction is both character driven, and plot driven at the same time. Meaning at times the characters are driving the bus, other times, the plot is.

We only “define” stories as character driven or plot driven, when the clear majority of bus driving is done by one or the other.

While we could analyze this topic further, producing more specific rules for every possible version of story, the amount of fiction outside this presented definition of character driven vs. plot driven is pretty small. It pays, to keep it simple.

Before we get back to all the points we’re going to discuss about writing the Drama, note that by understanding the difference between these two approaches to story, we can apply this focus to one specific area for big results;

Make KEY TURNS your character’s fault

Particularly;

  • The 1st Act Turn
  • The Midpoint Turn
  • The 2nd Act Turn

While it’s not 100% required to do this to create an effective story, (again, you can let the plot drive the bus at times) anchoring these three key turns of the story, to your character (or more specifically your character’s flaw), instead of some outside forces, will push the story deep into Drama territory.

Ok, so now that we have a clearer idea of character driven vs. plot driven, let’s get back to it.

First and foremost, writing the drama is about characters and their relationships.

This may sound obvious.

And of course, to some degree, all writing is about the characters and their relationships. But where other genres may take advantage of characters and their relationships, for the drama, it is the primary vehicle of the story.

It is, after all, certainly plausible to enjoy the spectacle script, for the thing(s) it makes a spectacle of; watching a boxing movie for the boxing, a kung-fu flick for the kung-fu, and a war movie for the clash of heavy weaponry, none of these movies outside the drama genre require an in-depth understanding of what personal sacrifices the boxer made, what personal demons the martial artist struggles with, or how the soldier manning the 50 caliber gets along with his drunkard brother.

So the question simply becomes; how do we capture characters and their relationships effectively enough to carry a script?

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