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Author: Nick Mac

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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Violet Sun Outline

Below is the Comprehensive Outline for an original sci-fi horror story I wrote. You may notice in this 8000 word, 38 page outline, there is a distinct current of the protagonist running from one point to another, with a specific series of highly defined goals.

Violet Sun was originally conceived as a story to a video game (never published), with a focus on level-by-level game play progression. Even the main alien antagonists were built with a game-play progression in mind.

I’ve always loved this story; from the religious vs science undertones, the zealot Minister villain, the crumbling Earth solar system, and insane escalation toward the ending…

I’ve pitched this story as a mini-series to a publisher that expressed interest (but never followed up) and discussed it with a couple of different comic book artists. Nothing’s come of it yet, but…

It’s high on my priority list to bring to life in comic format some day.

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Focused Writing

In a recent podcast I was talking about how a writer doesn’t get a chance to explain their work.

When a reader or audience engages with your writing, your work stands or falls on its own legs. Period.

Often, when I give editorial comments to newer writers on why something doesn’t work, they’ll try and defend their writing.

“Well the hero does that in this scene, because this, this and this.”

The minute you have to explain it, you’ve failed. Clear, effective writing requires no explanation.

So even if your argument is valid, you’ve still failed because you did not express your elements effectively enough that they need no explanation.

This concept circles back to one of writing’s most fundamental covenants, something you hear me say all the time;

“At any given moment, you must know the narrative significance of what you’re trying to express. Whether it’s at the act, sequence, scene, page, panel, dialogue bubble level, single line, or even word.”

With this level of constant awareness, you can then keep three considerations in mind at all times;

  • Intention to Express. Or simply, Intent.
  • Execution of Intention. Or simply, Execution.
  • Effectiveness of Execution. Or simply Effectiveness.

Keeping IEE in mind, allows focused writing. There are no complicated tricks here. The hardest part is merely taking the time and effort. Let’s break it down;

As an example, I’m gonna reverse engineer a panel from my new series Peerless.

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Robot Kids Outline

In my book on Story Discovery and Story Structure, “Storycraft for Comics,” I take a story from Concept, all the way through to Skeletal Outline, the first of the two-part outline method I teach.

Here is the completed second part or, Comprehensive Outline for that story.

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Developing Effective Mystery

The primary goal of any good story is to engage the reader.

You’ve probably heard me say countless times before, “Predictability is the death knell of good fiction.” If your reader knows what happens next, there’s a good chance they won’t continue reading, or if they do manage to press on, they’ll be distanced or otherwise disengaged.

A fundamental method to engage readers in any story, is to lure them with mystery and suspense.

[We’ll tackle suspense in another article]

The clinical definition of mystery is; something difficult or impossible to understand or explain… But this is only half the accurate definition when it comes to writing.

Because in fiction, mundane, irrelevant, superfluous or minor elements all lack mystery, no matter how difficult or impossible to understand you make them.

So while “how the bag of coffee beans got from the bottom shelf to the top shelf, with all the roommates denying moving them,” might be mysterious in real-life, in a story, it’s a distracting waste of time.

To establish mystery in fiction make sure the element is interesting by itself, important & relevant, and contains significant narrative drive.

Also, “impossible…” impossible is a bad word in most instances of establishing mystery. I’ll explain why later, but for now, take my word for it, which leaves us with the following more accurate definition for establishing mystery in comics;

An interesting, highly relevant, difficult to understand or explain element with high narrative drive.

Let’s break it down.

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Heroes, Antiheroes, Villains and More

We all know what each of these character types are and how they’re integral to genuine story, but what if I told you, all three of these are actually the same character type… only on different points of the same scale.

Mind blown?

Let’s get into it.

With the exception of some abstract Buddhist zen-like mental kung fu (the best action is no course of action kinda thing), heroes, antiheroes and villains are defined by their actions. Ok, really, all characters are defined by their actions, but broad generalizations do apply to this specific group.

In essence, when you say you’re going to create a hero, antihero, or villain, you’re really saying, you’re going to use an archetype template for the core nature of the character.

Character Archetype p61 Story craft for comics;

“Character archetypes are “genres” for characters. If I tell you I’ve got a horror comic, slasher script, your mind automatically opens a drawer of preconceived notions. You sit to read the script with expectations.
Character archetypes are exactly the same thing. Classifications of traits that define a role—universally accepted roles that transcend culture, creed and nationality.”

White Spectrum

At the top of the scale we have the HERO.

Someone concerned primarily with the welfare of others and who acts in a manner that puts their welfare ahead of his own. In fact, he’s likely to sacrifice himself or his personal desires, for the benefit of others. Heroes generally have a high sense of moral ground, distinguishing clearly between right and wrong, and following this morality without wavering.

If you want to be a good writer, dare I say a great writer, you should always look to Robocop to guide you.

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Effective Loose Scripting

When folks hire me to write a script, I don’t like to take shortcuts.

Genuine story is freakin’ complex. I get a solid page rate, and you can bet I’m going to leverage my experience and expertise at every single opportunity, and bring my client maximum value for the money they spend with me.

For this reason, I’m not partial to loose scripting.

Ok fine, simple can be hard. In fact, at the highest level, I’ll admit, you could have some genius level loose script that expresses story brilliantly. Leonardo da Vinci probably could have pulled it off, if he was into comics.

But let’s call a spade a spade, fact of the matter is, most writers go loose when the material covers content of lower narrative drive… another way of saying; material that’s less important (or less interesting to them), so it doesn’t matter how their artist conveys it.

This alone should be a red flag to the conscious writer.

Material that isn’t too important, should almost ALWAYS be cut, leaving more room for the material that is important.

No matter how you justify it, loose scripting passes a lot of the narrative work to the artist. Writing for the last 20+ years I reckon I’ve developed a pretty good eye for story. I personally, tend to run a tight ship and like to keep closer tabs on my narratives.

Don’t get me wrong, comics are absolutely a collaborative medium

but the writer’s initial take on a script, is the stage 1 rocket fuel. The more you put in, the greater the chance to break orbit when you launch.

All that said, you may find yourself wanting or needing to write loose on a particular script.

Ultimately, writing loose means you outline instead of script. Listing core beats, instead of unpacking them with detail.

The easy and quintessential example, is the fight scene.

Pages 14-20

Thing One and Thing Two fight. Thing Two wins.

That’s about as “Marvel Method” as it gets.

Since I’ve already discussed fight scenes extensively here on Story to Script, let’s breakdown a different example.

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Narrative through Panel Descriptions

[ Main site recommended reading: Visualizing Panels, Panel Descriptions, Visual Writing… there’s another one, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one it is, I’ll come back and update here when I remember.]

Panel 3:

Frank Castle shoots the Kingpin.

I see this kind of panel description all the time in comic scripts. I see folks, even established writer folks, defending it as legitimate loose scripting. I generally call it insufficient, lazy writing, but above all, I call it missed opportunity.

Remembering back to the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics; the four essential elements of every comic panel are:

  • Emotion
  • Comictography
  • Mise-en-Scene
  • Movement

All four of these are absent in the above panel description.

But even forgetting the four cornerstones of comic panels, we can simply ask “what is this panel telling us in the story, other than the action at hand (which we could only hope, has significant implications)?

Answer: literally, nothing.

Every panel in a comic is a chance to control and express the narrative of the story. While it is possible to do this with broad, loose strokes, the devil truly is in the details.

Hey, whaddya know, dialogue/narration can make a huge difference in expressing narrative throughout a comic… but for this article, let’s ditch dialogue and focus just on the panel descriptions.

Also keep in mind, much of the time you will express deep narrative movements through a sequences of panels. Sort of reverse engineering things backwards from the kind of panel descriptions above is a bit tricky… eh, screw it, let’s revisit this panel description anyway and see if we can’t improve it, actually expressing the narrative through added details;

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Defining Genre

Unless you were born and raised on a deserted island, you’ve been exposed to fiction your entire life and have an innate understanding of genre; the classification of fiction based on shared form, style and subject matter.

I’ve been working on a breakdown of genre conventions in the primary genres I work in. This article is going to expand on the essence of recognizing and defining genre for your work and serve as a prelude to that material.

Genre

If we traveled back in time to the creation of the first “story,” it would be void of genre. Even if it dealt with goblins, trolls, knights, dragons, wizards, and fantastic realms, it would not be classified as “fantasy.” It would simply be the story, as there would be no other pieces of fiction to compare it to.

Genre emerges only through the collective view of numerous works.

Through this collective view and categorization of fiction, genre gives rise to conventions and obligatory scenes; traditional, typical, and expected expressions. For this reason it’s important to recognize your genre(s); in order to satisfy readers by both delivering and subverting what is expected.

You can recognize genre before you write, using it as a guide in your discovery process, or, you can assess genre after you’ve written, using it as a guide in your editing process… either approach can be successful (though perhaps the most effective technique is to employ both).

 

The Parent Genre: Drama

To some extent all stories are a drama. That is to say, all (well-crafted) stories are more than a mere sequence of events, but a dramatization of those events, with specific narrative purpose.

Drama is the all encompassing genre, with the flexibility to contain and explore all human emotion.

Drama as a genre by itself is more serious in tone, focusing on character arc development and theme. Drama as a genre digs deep into the humanity behind the story.

Similarly, any genre of fiction can push more toward the dramatic, focusing more on character arc development and theme than the other elements that define its underlying genre.

While all fiction will have dramatic moments, don’t label your story the drama genre if the humanity and character interaction are overshadowed by other genre elements.

Because drama as a genre will so often be paired with other genres, clients often hear me refer to the stand alone drama work of fiction as the “straight drama.”

By moving from the general Drama to focus on a more specific emotion, the first base levels of genre begin to take shape. Notice that the emotion is the specific and guiding force here.

 

The Six Base Genres

Regardless of genre, all good fiction delivers a complete experience and expresses a wide range of human emotion. However, the base genres (as I refer to them) have a more intimate relationship with one specific emotion. I define the six base genres as follows;

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