Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Part Two

Before I teach you how to write dialogue, I have to make one change. In Part One of this guide, we settled on the name "Chip Macktin" for our teenage hero. I've been thinking about this, and I've decided that "Macktin" is a stupid name. Have any of you ever heard of that name before? That's not even real, is it? Anyway, I've been kicking around other options, and I thought about maybe "Chip McAfee". Are there two Cs in "McAfee"? Okay, how about "McGonigal"...oh, hell, that's too long. I'm not typing that shit out over and over again. Fuck it. His name's Chip Jones.

Step 3: Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is tricky. What you need to do is capture the blue-collar poetry of everyday human speech, while, at the same time, revealing character and advancing the story. Sounds easy, right? I'm being sarcastic, of course. Obviously, that sounds like a waking nightmare. But before you get too worked up and end up quitting on me, let me offer you a sample of dialogue from my novel The Coldness. The set-up, basically, is that our hero, Jake Struthers, is talking to Wendell Maples, the elderly caretaker of Blackgate Woods, the terrifying mansion Struthers has just inherited. Maples is greeting Jake for the first time.

"Good morning, Mr. Struthers," croaked Maples.

"Good morning, Mr. Maples," Struthers ejected, eyeing the old man with suspicion.

"How are you this morning?" Maples wondered. "I am fine."

"I'm also fine," Struthers agreed, squinting at the old man. "Is this my new home, Blackgate Woods?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Struthers. Behold it!"

Struthers did. It was big and old and gloomy, with gargoyles and cobwebs on it.

"What kind of a crazy place is this to live in?" he queried. "I work in Manhattan, New York, in a big firm. How am I supposed to drive all the way over here every night when I'm done working? This is crazy!"

Mr. Maples chuckled all weird.

"Ha ha ha," he bellowed. "Your Uncle Luke did not seem to mind it so much! He lived here until he was 88 years old, you know, and enjoyed every day. And every night, as well. Especially...night!"

"My uncle, Luke Seepher, was a crazy old man! He was all rich from buying paintings and then selling them, and also from secret things which I don't even know about. He never lived fast, like I do. I live in Manhattan. I need the juice! I need that wild city feel! When I stop working every day, I go out to bars and clubs. I buy sixty dollar glasses of alcohol and dance to crunk music. Who needs this dusty old place? You should bury this house with my Uncle Luke!"

"Bury it?" Maples asked, his crazy bat-eyebrows going up on his head. "With your uncle?? But your uncle wasn't buried!"

"He wasn't??" Struthers gasped.

"No," Maples grinned. "His body is still right inside Blackgate Wood. In bed. As though he were only...sleeping!!!!!!"

And, scene. When you get a chance, go back and deconstruct that conversation, and take note of how many little character details I've subtly revealed about Jake Struthers: about where he works, what his daily routine is like, what his lifestyle is. Then notice how, with every word, Maples seems to be pushing against Jake, pushing against Jake's very existence! That is dialogue, my friends. And don't think that just because I wrote it that this somehow explains my high praise. Even if I hadn't written that, I'd still think it was fucking awesome.

Also, "Luke Seepher" is supposed to sound like "Lucifer". If you didn't catch that, but felt a chill run through your veins when you read the name, a chill you were unable to explain, well, there's your answer.

Step 4: Scaring the Reader

How does one scare a reader? A reader is basically a big tub of nothing, sitting in a chair with glued-together paper in his hands. You can hardly expect someone like that to have enough blood coursing through them or nerves in their body to feel a headache, let alone the icy clutch of existential dread. So how do you, the horror writer, break through that slab of numbness, into the reader's primitive core?

Easy! You make things jump out from behind other things. Take this scene from The Coldness:

Jake Struthers was on a couch in Blackgate Woods. It was night outside and he was bored. Where was that hot city action?? He didn't know. Wait, no, it was in Manhattan! Not in Blackgate Woods! It was cold in the room and he had a fire going in the fireplace. It crackled like fires in Hell. He stared at the fire, and thought about Hell. Did he believe in Hell?? That was a crazy notion, if ever there was one! But what if?

He got up and went over to the fireplace. The fire danced like demons from Hell. Wait a minute! Demons...Hell...this was crazy! THEN A GHOST JUMPED OUT FROM BEHIND THE COUCH!!!!!!!

Whoa, settle down their, champ! Did something...startle you? Heh heh.

Listen, the point is, scaring the reader is tricky, but if you have the right tools in your toolcase, and then you take out the right tools at the right time and then use them correctly, constructing a solid edifice of fear over which your gentle readers mayn't climb...then you are a horror writer. You will have joined the ranks of Eddie Poe, Steve King, Howie Lovecraft, Art Machen, Clivey Barker, Bobby Aickman, and even...Bill Shakespeare! Also, Chuck Dickens.

So please...take my hand. There's a doorway opening before us! I see no light shining from within, do you? How very strange. It seems more like...darkness is pouring forth. Let us find out what lies beyond. Hold tight! Who knows what terrors we may face!



horoki said...

You don't know me, but I've been reading your blog for a long time (years and years and years, longer than it's been online!! isn't that scary*???), and I've always been too frightened by your genius to comment. But this post has me scared if I don't comment. Sir, once again you have changed my life.

*I might be a ghost. Just sayin' it's a possibility.

bill r. said...

Horoki - Welcome to my school! I hope that this GUIDE TO WRITING HORROR FICTION has been as fun and educational for you to read as it was for me to write. Some day, I hope to be browsing through the horror section of my local bookstore and see a black cover featuring a picture of a broken jack-in-the-box surrounded by a puddle of blood, with the words "A Novel by Horoki" printed under some title or other.

In the meantime, KEEP WRITING! You're almost there!

PS - If you ARE a ghost, please don't haunt me! LOL j/k!

Ed Howard said...

I worry that this guide is putting dangerous tools in potentially unworthy hands. I mean, you can't just give away the secrets of horror writing -- secrets that some men have studied for entire lifetimes to master -- to anyone who can manage to click a link to a blog. I'm sure it took you decades to learn how to write such scary and brilliant dialogue; why should some hack get the benefit of all your experience in five minutes of reading?

Then again, maybe I shouldn't worry. It takes a true genius to come up with this stuff, and anyone else will just be a pale imitator. I mean: "Especially...night!" You can't teach that.

bill r. said...

Ed, I worried about that, too. But then I decided that only those who can truly hear the music will be able to put my tools to their proper use. The others will flail and gasp and writhe like so many beached fish.

I'm sure it took you decades to learn how to write such scary and brilliant dialogue...

Ha ha ha, no. A half hour, tops. But that’s just me.

horoki said...

lol Mr. bill r, I would never haunt a writer! Because we know most writers are fragile and if they get scared they'll die and dead writers are weird and don't haunt living people but other ghosts. So it totally backfires.

But seriously, I was just a humble student when I started reading you, and your blog made me decide to become an engineering student. So just think of all the lives like mine that you've changed, and may that thought comfort you when you're in the dark mental place where you write things like "The Coldness".

Also Mr. Ed Howard (I like your blog too--in fact I read all the internets, so don't worry I'm not a stalker even though I know where you live hahaha) I wouldn't worry about the unworthy hands part, though I hope you're not implying that my appendages are impure. Horror writing is an art, like writing screenplays, and your argument's like saying random Hollywood people write screenplays all the time after reading screenplay gurus. No, all Hollywood people respect writers and just know, wow, I couldn't write Transformers 2 so I'll just get out of town. And some of these people are foreigners and then they make crap like Out 1, like what's that all about? But that's another story.

Shawnee said...

Well hell-oooo Bill! This is me, leaving a comment, per your request. Nice to see you again!

Peter Nellhaus said...

Somewhere, August Derleth is smiling. At least I hope that's a smile.

bill r. said...

I can comment again! I can comment again! HOORAY!

I was way too stressed out about that.

Rick Olson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Olson said...

Bill: see this.

Elmore would approve.

bill r. said...

Rick - I've seen that before. I think Elmore Leonard is so full of shit, I can't even tell you!

Still, I'm really bummed that I forgot to use dialect. How I forgot that, I don't know.

Rick Olson said...

I absolutely love the man's work. Don't know if he's really full of shit personally, but I think he's the best around ... see my post earlier today ...

I remember reading advice very similar to his from Robert B. Parker one time, for what it's worth.

bill r. said...

I was joking about him being full of shit. I was just trying to stay in character.

No, I love Leonard. I don't think all of his stuff is so wonderful, but when he's on -- KILLSHOT, for instance, or UNKNOW MAN #89 -- he's one of the best around. And most of those rules make a lot of sense.

Adam Ross said...

I think this dialogue tutoring may be what I need to finish, my yet-to-be-written horror novel, "Behind the Crimson Door at the Chateau del Negro." One trick I've learned before I've written that novel is that chapter names are another way to frighten readers. For example, Chapter 6 in my book is entitled "You Want Blood, You Got It."

Since the previous 5 chapters will practically be dripping with blood, I expect them to gasp when they read this chapter name, which will probably have a little less blood in actuality -- if only because I'll likely be running out of ways to describe pools and pools of blood.

Anonymous said...

Surely its by luck that we get such good lessons for free. I have got it on the part of dialog thankx