Putting the Horror into Horror Stories – Part 2
When we think about horror, we immediately think of visceral, blood and guts stories, but horror is much more than that – the best horror stories are about our fears, perceptions and the unknown - the things we don’t see or understand. All you need is the fears of your reader’s imagination.
No horror should be without some foreshadowing. It’s another way to add atmosphere and tone to the story, as well as added tension. Writers use all manner of things to foreshadow – the weather, an animal, a dream, a sound, circling birds…as long as it isn’t out of place within the story, and the reader can see it, so they will know that the birds circling the trees might signify something, or the coal coloured clouds in the distance represent a dreadful, suppressive mood that belies something terrible is about to happen.
The right pacing is essential. It can create dread, tension and provoke fear. To do that, use longer descriptions that deliberately linger on certain sensory details – this slows the narrative and cocoons the reader with a false sense of security. It can also create apprehension – the feeling that something could happen any minute…and then when something does happen, quicken the pace with shorter, staccato sentences and words to quicken the action.
Pace is the elastic band that constricts and relaxes the tension. It’s the thing that makes the reader bite their nails in anticipation.
So what else should you do? Well, use people’s fears against them.
Everyone is afraid of something. Horror writers are master manipulators. They play on the most common fears that frighten humans – whether it’s the fear of the dark, creepy crawlies, a fear of flying or even clowns – their stories take irrational fears and twist them to create a distorted sense of reality. So a story about a nest of poisonous spiders under the bed, for instance, takes the common fear of spiders and intensifies it by emphasising their killer instinct, as they come out from their nest at night and crawl around the carpets and curtains and under the bedsheets...
For arachnophobes, this scenario twists their sense of reality. The same is true for people who are terrified of snakes, rats, heights, the sight of blood and so on. And if such fears are combined with pain, torment or death, it will cause the reader discomfort.
Don’t be afraid to shock or terrify your readers. They secretly love it.
A good horror story is never without a plot twist. They are a great way to pull the rug from under your reader, to wrong-foot them and totally change the direction of the story with a jaw-dropping revelation.
They’re not easy to accomplish, simply because you have only one shot to deliver a gut punch. The writer needs to carefully hint at a twist, without directly giving the game away. They do this by slowly building up the tension and atmosphere. They lull the reader into a false sense of security and they manipulate what the reader thinks. They let the reader become comfortable with the story and the characters, so that when the author delivers that slap, it’s memorable and effective.
Always keep the reader guessing and keep them unsettled with the ‘what might happen next?’ ploy. Use their fears against them. Manipulate their emotions. Shock them. Terrify them. Take reality and turn it into something twisted.
Make your reader stand on the edge of darkness, because the scariest thing for all of us?
The feeling of not being in control.