Writing Something Horrifying
by Joseph Carrabis
Today on “31 Days of Halloween” Nebula Award nominee Joseph Carrabis drops in for his second visit. This time he’s here to talk about some of the ways that authors craft the kind of horror stories that you don’t dare put down.
Over To Our Guest
Psychologists and philosophers debate “horror” as a concept. Authors have it much easier. They want to give readers chills. They want to make readers nervous. Uncomfortable. They want readers to turn on all the lights, to check locks on the doors, to tuck their feet up under themselves so nothing can grab them from below, to check under the bed before getting under the covers, to look in their closets, to look at their loved ones suspiciously.
Most people, reading the above, will travel a psycho-emotive path from casual interest to mild anxiety. Readers shouldn’t be able to recognize their growing anxiety. If they do, they’re paying attention to themselves, not the story, meaning the story isn’t fully engaging them. You want your readers concerned about what happens next in the story, not that they’re uncomfortable reading it.
The path followed in the above is due to progressive word choice – easier, chills, nervous, uncomfortable – followed by a series of recognizable anxiety behaviors – turn on lights, check locks, tuck feet, check under the bed, look in closets – and then we have the capper, the threat of personal betrayal – looking at their loved ones suspiciously.
Escalating the reader’s discomfort is the first third of horror writing. Make the reader uncomfortable for no reason and they’ll put the book down, never to pick it up again. But give the reader a sympathetic character, someone they can identify with, and you have them.
The heart of every Stephen King story I’ve read has an “everyman” main character, someone all readers can easily identify with. Could be a single mother wanting the best for her child, a factory worker wanting to leave early, a child wanting to avoid sewers, doesn’t matter.
Put progressive emotional language together with a sympathetic, reader-identifiable character and you’re two thirds the way to writing horror your readers will love.
The last third involves three things: 1) put that identifiable character(s) at risk, 2) let the reader know the character(s) is at risk, and 3) don’t let the character(s) know they’re at risk. Now the reader is more concerned about the well-being of your fictional character than they are about themselves. They miss dinner, they stay up late reading, they’ll miss bus stops.
Alfred Hitchcock told a story about creating frightening scenes. He’d focus on a man and woman sitting at a table in a restaurant. Under the table is a ticking bomb. The audience can see the bomb under the table and knows it’s about to explode. The couple sitting there have no clue the bomb’s about to go off. They’re being just like everyone else — laughing, arguing, goo-goo eying each other — in other words, just like us, ie, the characters are sympathetic and we can identify with them.
Everybody in the audience is on the edge of their seat thinking, “Get out of there, you fools! You’re about to die!” They’re locked on what’s happening because they want that couple – hence themselves – to survive.
As Piker Press editor Sand Pilarski wrote me regarding The Goatmen of Aguirra, “Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Every interruption seemed like a catastrophe.” One review of The Augmented Man included “I was so caught up in the last few pages that I missed my bus stop.”, and another reviewer commented “I tried to force my eyes to stay open past 2 AM, but I read on the next day. The writing is so good, it’s addictive.” Although not typically horror, these stories engaged their readers to the point the readers’ everyday world fell away.
So “Writing Something Horrifying” simplified:
- Use increasingly anxiety-provoking language.
- Create characters readers can identify with and care about.
- Put those characters at risk, make sure the reader knows the characters are at risk, and don’t tell the characters they’re at risk.
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About Joseph Carrabis
Joseph Carrabis’s short fiction has been nominated for both Nebula (Cymodoce, May ‘95 Tomorrow Magazine) and Pushcart (The Weight, Nov ‘95 The Granite Review) and has recently appeared in Across the Margin, The New Accelerator, parAbnormal, serialized in The Piker Press, and later this year in HDP. His first indie novel, The Augmented Man, is getting 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes&Noble, and others. His two self-pubbed books, Empty Sky and Tales Told ‘Round Celestial Campfires, are getting 5 star reviews (and he has more books in the works).
Joseph holds patents covering mathematics, anthropology, neuroscience, and linguistics. When not writing, he spends time loving his wife, playing with his dog and cat, flying kites bigger than most cars, cooking for friends and family, playing and listening to music, and studying anything and everything he believe will helps his writing.
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Who Else Is Dropping In?
“31 Days of Halloween” is a collaborative effort, and I really couldn’t put out 31 posts in 31 days without help.
While I’ve personally filled many of the slots for the event, I also have some amazing guest posts, from some wonderful folks.
Want to see what else is happening?