Monday, September 21, 2009

A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Part One

Whenever I tell someone that, among my many creative pursuits, I write horror fiction, the person who has just breathlessly received this knowledge invariably asks me the following question: "But how? I read horror fiction all the time, and I know I could never write it myself. I mean, vampires?? What the fuck? Who came up with that one? And can I have some of what they were smoking!? Ha ha ha!" I always share in the laughter, because it's a good joke, no matter how many times I've heard it. Vampires are pretty crazy.

After our laughter has subsided, however, I always gently take the person by the wrist, pull them close to me, and say: "You can write horror fiction! Anyone can do it! You only need to do three things: Believe in yourself, form a bond with the darkness in your soul, and follow my rules. Especially that last one. Did you know," I go on to say, "that one of my horror novels, The Coldness, contained a critical blurb on the front cover that read 'Bill R. out-John Sauls John Saul!'? So who better to teach you?" I then ask them to accompany me to my home, where our lessons will begin. This other person, who until that point always seemed terribly interested in what I had to say, will then suddenly act as though teaching them to write horror fiction was my idea, and will say, "Oh, no. No, why would I do that? I don't even know you. I've never even heard of you. The Coldness? Should I have heard of that?" I then say, yes, you should have heard of it, but it hasn't been published yet. "Then where'd the blurb come from?" they ask. Then I'm like, "Who are you, Michiko Kakutani?? Just come over to my house!" Then they say, "No! Let go of my wrist!" So I say, "Then who will teach you? Your mom??" Then he goes, "I will fucking punch your face, if you don't let me go." So I let him go, but not before adding, "You will never out-John Saul John Saul with that attitude. You probably think great horror fiction grows like mushrooms, and you can just put it on a pizza and call it day and sell a million copies. Horror fiction is not like mushrooms, I can assure you of that." "What?" the guy says. "I said that horror fiction and mushrooms are not analagous," I repeat, and he says, "No, I know that. I actually knew that before you told me. You know, I was just talking to you to be polite. The fact is that I don't care."

And then he leaves. Curiously, not one of those people with whom I've had such an encounter has ever published a successful horror story, let alone a novel. Or at least I assume that's the case, but to be honest I rarely, if ever, get their names, so who knows. But the point is that you don't want to be like those assholes, do you? You wouldn't even be reading this if you not only want to be a successful horror writer, but also believed that I was the correct person from whom to seek guidance. And guidance from me you shall have. Let us begin at the beginning.

Step 1: Thinking Up Ideas

The hardest thing about writing horror fiction is finding unique and scary ideas. Sometimes, it seems like it's all been done. Vampires? Been done. Zombies? Been done. Wolfmans? Been done. Your job as a fresh-faced, go-getting writer is to take an old idea and add a new twist to it, make it sing, make it happening, make it now. So how about a vampire rock star?? That's actually already been done, too, and more than once, but still, you're on the right track. Vampires have really been run into the ground (pun most toothsomely intended!), and outside of "vampires who investigate crimes on a moonbase" -- which is my thing, so hands off -- you'd do best to skip them entirely.

What I would recommend for you is to start with something more mysterious. Let's just spitball something here. Let's say your story takes place somewhere in the Midwest, some rural communty in Nebraska or something. Okay, now let's say that it's Halloween. And your teenage hero, Chip, has a tough family life, because his dad drinks all the time, and his mom got killed by a plane crash. Chip wants to go out trick-or-treating, just like a normal 17 year-old boy, and he's got his favorite costume, which is Dracula, because all teenagers thing Dracula is "cool beans", but his dad is all drunk, so instead of trick-or-treating, Chip has to go the local market store and buy his dad some alcohol medicine. Otherwise, he might die. So he's driving out to the market store, and an old homeless farmer jumps out into the road, and Chip runs right over him. Chip goes to him, and just before he dies, the farmer says, "In exactly one year you will all die!" Then the old man dies, and his body turns into thousands of ants which then fly away (Note: When you describe the ants flying away, be sure to put in something about them flying "into the night sky" or "into the night air". We're trying to set a mood, after all).

After that, I think you should be off an running.

Step 2: Creating Characters

I won't lie to you: this part is hard as balls. Fortunately for you, as you can see above, you're almost halfway there as far as Chip goes. You already know that Chip has a father who drinks nothing but alcohol, and that Chip wants to be Dracula for Halloween. If you flesh him out too much more than this, then you might be accused of "over-boiling the soup". But you still have to ask yourself: Who is Chip? Who does Chip want to be? What does Chip care about? What clothes does Chip wear?

You can get most of this out of the way in one paragraph, but remember, in horror fiction, as with all fiction, good writing is king. You have to be able to make your reader live your story, and see through the eyes of your characters, and the one tool you have is that wondrous and frightening old mistress we call Words. I just made up an old saying: "If you can't bring it, then you better not sing it." And that's exactly what I'm trying to tell you. Our language has all these words, just sitting there, waiting for you to use them, but you better choose them wisely. If you want to use the word "pentacle", but accidentally use "pendulum", then fuck you, because that's your problem, not mine.

So you're introducing Chip. Here's the wrong way to do that:

Chip loved school and wore nice clothes most times. He also like to watch TV and eat hot dogs, too. Do you know what kind of music he liked? Rock and roll! He loved to dance to it. His friends thought he was crazy! Another thing he liked was girls, but he was also sad because the one girl he liked was dating with the Football Quarterback. And remember from before that his dad drank booze.

Congratulations. You just made Chip a pussy. Now here's the right way to introduce him:

Chip hated school and his teachers. He wore jeans that matched his taste in rock and roll music. You would never catch him dancing though, because he thought it was for pussies, except if you danced, that was okay with him. Chip didn't judge people like everybody else in Nebraska. He liked girls but was sad because the one girl he liked, whose name was Tammy [Note: I gave the girl a name this time. You must always remember to name your characters], was in love with the Football Running Back [Note: I changed him to a running back. Making him a QB is too obvious, and you must always avoid cliche', or you should avoid it as often as it is practical to do so]. He liked to watch TV and eat hot dogs, too.

Voila. Clean, precise language, that nevertheless evokes for the reader a complete and living human being. Take the stage, Chip! The spotlight is ready for you!

Oh, shit, you should also give him a last name. Maybe "Mackey". Chip Mackey? Does that sound okay? Or "Macktin". Chip Macktin. Chip Macktin. That sounds pretty good. Chip Macktin.

All right, take the stage, Chip Macktin! The spotlight is ready for you!


Next: Dialogue and How to Scare the Reader


Greg said...

Wait, wolfman's have been done? When?

Chip. Dude, that fucker is some scary shit. How did you think him up... and can I have whatever you're smoking? Ha ha. Ha. LOL. Ha ha.

bill r. said...

Yeah, there was a movie made once called The Wolfman. Then they made a sequel called Here Comes More Wolfmans. They were pretty good movies, but how many times can you go back to the same well?

I don't think Chip is scary. I think Chip is a hero. What an interesting take you have!

and can I have whatever you're smoking? Ha ha. Ha. LOL. Ha ha...


Greg said...

Chip is the hero, you're right! My bad - ;P

I can't wait for the dialogue part. I tried my hand at scary dialogue once but think I failed. Perhaps you can give me some tips. Here's what I wrote:

Donald: Hello Suzie. You sure are pretty today.

Suzie: Thank you Donald.

Donald: You're welcome.

Suzie: I like your suit.

Donald: Thank you.

Suzie: Um...

Donald: Yes.

Suzie: I am a ghost.

Donald: Aaaaaaaahhhh!!!!!!

What do you think?

bill r. said...

Honestly? I think that's pretty terrific. I didn't know Suzie was a ghost, and felt an icy hand grip my spine when that was revealed. I knew just what Donald was feeling when he said "Aaaaah!"

Keep writing!

Greg said...

Wow! I feel honored beyond words! Thanks! To think, I just got praised by the guy who out-John Sauls John Saul! Incredible!

bill r. said...

I didn't feel it was appropriate to mention this in the actual post, but my ability to out-John Saul John Saul has been clocked, and let me just say this: I am really fast.