by Tim Waggoner
Want to write horror? A lot of folks do. The mainstream publishing industry may have momentarily turned its collective back on the genre, but the small press scene is thriving, not to mention the burgeoning number of horror sites on the Web. Unfortunately, a great many stories published in these markets are uninspired (to put it kindly) and just plain bad (to put it honestly). Want your work to stand out from the rest of the lycanthropic pack? Want to start selling to larger and more prestigious markets? Want your horror stories to be so good that people breathlessly race through your prose, barely able to whisper an exhausted, "Goddamn, that was something," when they've finished reading?
It ain't easy. But I've got three tips to offer that will increase your chances of joining the dark pantheon of horror writers who kick major ass.
1. Beware of clichés.
Read widely, both inside and outside of the horror genre, so you can recognize plots that have been done to (living) death. Then you'll know better than to write a story which ends, "And it was all a dream" or "And then he realized as his lover sank her fangs into his neck that she... was... a... VAMPIRE!"
When I was in my teens, I wrote a horror story with the embarrassing title of "Scary Christmas." In it, a young punk torments and kills an elderly man whose ghost comes seeking Yuletide revenge. At least I had the good sense never to send this piece of crap out. Revenge stories are one of the biggest clichés in horror fiction, and beside that, there's no tension in them. Readers know exactly how they're going to turn out every time.
Still, you can make clichés work for you. In my story, "Blackwater Dreams," published in Bruce Coville's Book of Nightmares 2, I tried my hand at another ghostly revenge story. Only this time I took the cliché and gave it a twist. The man character, a young boy who blames himself for the drowning death of a friend, is visited in his dreams by his friend's ghost. He fears the spirit has come seeking revenge, but the friend isn't angry -- he's lonely. At the end of the story, my protagonist has to make a terrible choice: leave his friend to his loneliness, or join him in his watery afterlife.
In my story "Alacrity's Spectatorium," I twisted another cliché around. I took the notion that vampires don't cast reflections and created a dark mirror which displays only the reflections of vampires. What price would vampires pay for a glimpse of themselves in such a unique mirror? More, what would such a glimpse mean to them?
Instead of ending with a cliché, why not begin with one? Start with "It was all a dream" and build your story from there. Why not begin with a man discovering his lover's a vampire and see what happens after that? Or flip the cliché around. What if a vampire discovered his lover wasn't another nosferatu but was instead (shudder) a human?
And try to avoid the most overworked plot in horror fiction, which author Gary A. Braunbeck describes as a story in which the main character exists only to get "slurped by the glop." Stories in which characters are merely props to be eaten, drained, eviscerated, sliced, diced and turned into julienne fries by your monstrous "glop," whether it's a vampire, werewolf or the ubiquitous serial killer. These stories aren't just boring; they're insulting to readers who deserve better.
Probably the best way to avoid clichés is to adhere to one of the hoariest: write what you know. Draw on your own experience for your story ideas, write about the things that excite and disturb you, the people, places and events that form the unique fabric of your existence, which make your life different than any other that's ever been lived before. If you do this, you can't help but be original.
2. There's a difference between disturbing readers and simply grossing them out.
Too many beginners think that writing horror is all about detailed descriptions of disembowelments and gushing bodily fluids. They mistake the use of such elements for artistic audacity and cutting-edge (pun intended) writing. The truth is, though, that such writers are the literary equivalent of the kid who jams his finger up his nose and pulls forth a big old nasty booger so he can wave it in his friends' faces.
Good horror -- like all fiction that truly matters -- is about affecting readers emotionally. True, revulsion is an emotional reaction, but it's a simplistic one with a limited effect on readers. They finish your story about a penis-munching condom, think, Man, that's sick, and immediately forget all about it. You've failed to touch them save on the most shallow of levels.
I'm not saying you should avoid writing about the dark and disturbing. That's what horror's all about, from the quiet subtlety of a half-glimpsed shadow on an otherwise sunny day to the in-your-face nastiness of blood dripping from the glinting metal of a straight razor. But if you are, as Stephen King puts it, going to go for the gross-out, it has to arise naturally from the story itself, to be so integral to the tale you're telling that it can't be removed without making the story suffer.
In Gary A. Braunbeck's novella, "Some Touch of Pity" (also an excellent example of a writer taking a cliché -- the werewolf story -- and putting an original spin on it), there's a flashback detailing a character's rape. Not just the physical aspect of it, but what the character experiences emotionally as the rape occurs. The scene is absolutely brutal, but it's also completely necessary to the story. If the scene were toned down, or worse, removed, the story would be far less emotionally wrenching.
In my story, "Keeping It Together," forthcoming in the SFF-Net anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire, I write about a gay man living a heterosexual lifestyle in a home and with a family that he has created from his own desperate desire to be what he perceives as "normal." But it's an illusion which can't be sustained, and as the story progresses, the house, his wife and young daughter all begin to decay around him. In one scene he has sex with his wife out of a sense of husbandly duty, and since she is well along in her dissolution by this point, their lovemaking . . . damages her. I created this scene not merely to make readers go "Ooooh, yuck!" but to further dramatize the impact of such deep-seated denial on both my main character and those around him.
Remember that extreme elements, like anything else in fiction, are only tools to help you tell your stories in the best way you can. But like any powerful tool, they should be used sparingly, cautiously and always with good reason.
3. Give us characters we care about.
Let me say right up front that this bit of advice doesn't mean that we have to like your characters. It means your characters should be so well developed and interesting that we want to read your story to find out what happens to them. There are characters -- Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector -- who aren't always likable (and are sometimes downright despicable) but who are so unique, so fully realized, that they can't fail to fascinate. Compelling characters is what memorable fiction is all about, whether you're writing for The New Yorker or Cemetery Dance.
In my story, "Seeker," which appeared in the White Wolf anthology, Dark Tyrants, I write about a disillusioned crusader who has lost his faith in God and has gone searching for a nest of vampires in order to prove to himself that there is some sort of spiritual aspect to existence, even if that aspect is evil. The plot runs on two tracks. First is a narrative of the crusader penetrating the forest where the vampires live, being attacked by them, and finally dealing with their leader (who I made not merely a vampire but one who has merged with the Wood itself). The second track details, through various flashbacks, the events that caused the crusader to lose his faith and make him so desperate to find a sign -- any sign -- that there's Something More to life.
If I did my job right, readers will be interested not only in the action in the story, but also in the crusader himself, so that when the story reaches its climax and the character's quest is fulfilled in a way he -- and hopefully readers -- never imagined (no, he doesn't become a vampire himself; remember what I said earlier about avoiding clichés? I try to practice what I preach), there's not only an emotional pay-off, but hopefully readers will leave the story thinking a little bit about their own spirituality.
There's a lot more to writing good horror, but if you take the three morsels of advice I've given you to heart, you'll create stories which will not only rise above the generic tales of flesh-munching zombies and blood-lusting serial killers that are out there, you'll create fiction worth reading -- and worth remembering.
This article was originally published in EWG Presents, July 1998 and was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Madeira and reprinted on Terravista in July 2000.