Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Writing Horror and Suspense

One of my new friends on Facebook recently wrote me asking for advice on writing horror. She wrote:

I see you're a horror writer. Do you have any advice for me, when writing particular scenes for horror? As far as gore/suspense, descriptions/emotions, etc...

Writing horror/suspense: When writing horror, don't hold back. Tap into your deepest, darkest imagination and write whatever your imagination gives you. Avoid censoring yourself. I've written some pretty twisted scenes and thought: I can't let anybody read this. The violence is just too brutal. But then people would read it and say they loved the scene.

I enjoy writing and reading fiction that originates from truth. When I say “truth” I mean that the scene was written from the writer’s heart. There’s a great distinction between stories written from an idea and those written from an author’s heart. The way to tell the difference is a story written from a writer’s heart evokes feelings in you when you read it. So in the case of writing horror, which explores darker themes, the genre attracts readers who want the writer to give us everything he or she has within her. As you type words across your computer screen, unleash whatever's clawing to get out. At the core of good protagonists and evil villains is a darkness driven by fear. Readers of horror can relate to fear, because we all have inner demons that we battle from time to time.

Suspense is putting a character into a situation where the reader knows danger is present. Example: a cop enters a house where a serial killer is hiding. All the lights are out. The cop finds a mutilated body, and it’s his partner. The dead man’s face has been skinned off. We might already know the killer likes to peal off the faces of his victims and wear them as masks. Now the cop has tracked down the killer to his lair. Every second the cop is exploring that house, we're on the edge of our seats, wondering when the killer is going to leap out of the shadows. We can ratchet up the suspense as our hero discovers a basement where shelves are lined with mannequin heads, each one draped with shrivled skin masks staring at our hero with hollow eyes and twisted grimaces. The more we learn how dangerous the killer is, the more suspenseful the scene gets.

Describing violence and gore: As far as gore goes, that's a matter of taste. Horror includes a whole spectrum from psychological horror (with very little gore) to splatter punk (graphic gore and violence - Brian Keene's zombie novels are great examples). So write gore according to your taste. Extremely gory novels attract a certain group of readers and tend to repel others. So, again, write horror the way you love to read it.

Writing descriptions: If you're writing suspense, keep descriptions to a minimum so you can keep the action driving at a fast pace. I describe settings in short paragraphs, then I start the action or dialogue. I generally interweave descriptions with the action. In SHADOWS IN THE MIST, I have a platoon take refuge in an abandoned Catholic church that's suffered a lot of war damage. I don't describe the church all at once. I give a brief description when the soldiers first reach the church. Then I describe a little more and a little more, as the soldiers explore the church with their flashlights. At some point the reader puts it all together and sees the big picture. When describing a setting, feed the reader a little at a time, so the setting becomes its own mystery--a place full of wonderful discoveries and hidden darkness.

We don't have to describe every detail. I like to allow the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. Buildings like churches, castles, mansions, hospitals create their own image. If it's a minor scene, I'll just say my character entered a Catholic church. I describe more the action happening within the scene rather than paint the setting. When you allow the reader to use his imagination, in a sense you and the reader are co-creating the scene together in the reader's mind.

Writing emotions: Your ultimate goal is to evoke emotions in your readers and have them fall in love with your characters. But you can't contrive emotions or the scene will feel flat or trite. I first create characters that I, myself, fall in love with and care about. Then whatever happens to them evokes emotions in me. When I write dramatic scenes or scary scenes or action scenes where my protagonist is running for his life, I have to feel what's happening. I drum up those feelings of anger, fear, sadness, love, lust, and then write what my character is feeling. This happens naturally when I get into the story and I'm in tune with my character. The love scenes between my leading man and lady are by far the most fun to write. :) Again, don't hold anything back. Write about people you love and then write whatever you're feeling as they face conflicts with antagonists who will do everything in their power to stop the protagonists from achieving what they most desire.

I wish to thank Elizabeth H. from Syracuse, NY, for enquiring. I hope this helps.

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