Crafting Horror

Hello my Freaky Darlings,

last week we chatted about Setting and Characterisation in HorrorThis week we’ll be discussing crafting your horror.

‘When introducing the supernatural into the story, try and convey the sense that your character is next to something so dreadful that a glimpse is almost too much, but a full revelation would be unbearable, but in as few words as possible.’Adam Nevill,author of Apartment 16.  

Crafting your horror novel is about all the elements coming together. It’s about your writing style, it’s about your characters and the setting (which we’ve already discussed), it’s about the plot you’ve  structured, it’s about your dialogue, it’s how you write your action scenes. It’s about everything you do to make the story hang together.

I’ve given setting and characterisation their own chapter because, to me, they are two of the most important aspects. The others are also important but without good characterisation and a realistic setting it doesn’t matter how well you do the others it’s just going to fall apart. But that’s just my opinion and you’re more than welcome to disagree with me.

All of these aspects are important to your book. It’s horrible having to get through a novel or short story that has bad dialogue, or an unbelievable plot line, or implausible action scenes. One false step in your crafting could result in the reader putting your book down because they’d rather wash their car or do the laundry. And let’s not forget the scathing review they might leave on Amazon.

  • Plot

Don’t over plot your story before you start writing it. Have an idea of how you want the story to develop, how you want it to start and an inkling of how you want it to end. But don’t be too rigid in your thinking in regards to your plot. If you over plot it you’ll end up stifling your characters. Characters have a tendency of taking the story in completely different and unexpected places which make the story richer. If you try and force your characters to jump through the plot hoops you decided on beforehand, you’ll end up with paper thin characters that have absolutely no depth. Allow the story to unfold and surprise you. What’s the point of writing the story if you already know how it ends?

But then again, you may be one of those writers who has to plot everything from scenes to plot twists to character arcs. If you are one of those writers. Try this little exercise by Jessica Paige Morrell ( ) It’s called the story of a story. Use it to work through your basic plot outline.

Once upon a time something happened to someone. (What happens in your story to set your main character in their current path?)

And she decided that she would pursue a goal. (What is your characters goal?)

So she devised a plan of action. (What plan of action is your character going to put into play to achieve their goal?)

And even though there were forces trying to stop her. (What obstacles are in their way?)

She moved forward because there was a lot at stake. (What’s at stake? What drives your character?)

And just as things seemed as bad as they could get. (What insurmountable odds does your character have to overcome?)

She learned an important lesson. (What does your character learn? Obvious, I know)

And when offered the prize she had sought so strenuously she had to decide whether to take it or not. (This is pretty obvious as well)

And in making that decision she sacrificed a need. (What need did your character have?)

That had been created by something in her past. (What is the back story? What screwed up event in her past resulted in her having that need? Since it’s horror, you can get pretty twisted here.)

Other things to ask yourself while plotting it out are what is the basic story idea? What is the goal? What is the basic plot? What is the sub plot? And what themes are there throughout the story?

  • Dialogue

Eaves drop on conversations people have around you. Listen to the way people really speak to each other. Do they really use each other’s names at every turn while chatting? Do they say things like, “Bob, I’m going to have my hair cut by a chainsaw wielding maniac today.” “Oh Jill, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Or do they simply say things like, “I’m having my hair cut …” “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

The things your characters say need to be realistic and un-stilted. Dialogue needs to flow.

Now the question is, how do you identify to the reader who says what and how and to whom? And do you use adverbs to describe how things are said? And how do you make it flow? This is where dialogue tags come in.

As a rule of thumb stay away from adverbs, and not just in your dialogue. Adverbs are those pesky words that end in ly. Words like angrily or proudly or bitterly. They make your dialogue tags and your writing look lazy. This is not the 1970’s. We don’t write like that anymore.

Exclamation marks are also unnecessary. The way you write your dialogue tags will let your reader know what an exclamation mark used to do.

Another way of writing the above dialogue would be like this:

“I’m having my hair cut by a chainsaw wielding maniac today,” Jill said with a grin and then sipped her coffee. She knew Bob was sensitive about his skills as a hairdresser.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Bob asked as he tried to imagine how he would go about cutting her hair with a chainsaw. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Just by adding certain nuances to the sentences immediately after the dialogue you can give the reader a far greater idea of what’s going on between your characters.

Play around with dialogue tags. What feels right to you? What works for you? Don’t just take my word for it. Try it out for yourself.

  • Action Scenes

When writing an action scene, pace and view point are important. In order to create the right pace you need to play around with your sentence structure. The shorter the sentence the quicker the pace. The longer the sentence the slower the pace. Action scenes are quick and punchy by nature. You want your reader to be breathless at the end of it.

You also want your reader to feel like they’re a part of the action. In order to do that you and your reader need to be right inside your viewpoint characters mind. Don’t just tell the reader your character was sliced and diced. Describe the blade and the blood. Tell them how it felt to have the knife slice into your characters flesh. Describe the pain. What does it do to your characters mind to see the blood gushing out of their wound? Show, don’t tell. If you describe the action from a faraway view point it becomes boring. You need to be part of the action for it to be exciting. Put your reader in the middle of it.

Find a book on your shelf, preferably one with a few action scenes. How did the author do it? How did they structure their sentences? Did they use onomatopoeia ( How did they describe the action? Now go and write your own action scene. Play around with pace and description. What works for you?

  • Style

Style comes from reading, and reading, and reading some more. Read across a wide variety of genres. See how other authors have done it before you. Then write and write some more. What works for you? I know I say that a lot, but it really is your writing journey and it has to be comfortable for you. If it’s forced, if something isn’t a comfortable fit for you, your reader will pick  up on it.

Your style of writing is personal and is something that develops over time, but you don’t need to have just one style of writing. You need to fit the style to the type of story you’re writing.

An exercise to help you, and this may sound a little strange, but bear with me. Grab one of your favourite horror novels or short stories off the shelf. Turn to one of your favourite passages. Now grab a pen and some paper. Write out, by hand, that passage. Write it slowly, don’t rush. No one’s standing over you with a stopwatch. As you write it out, let the words the author used wash over you. Examine each word they use. Do the words and sentence structure tell you what sort of story the passage comes from? Once you’ve finished writing it out, put the book away. Get some fresh paper. How would you have written it? Write that same passage your own way. What would you change? Find your own voice and style.

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  1. Pingback: Short Horror Fiction | Joan De La Haye

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