Between work and dealing with computer issues, I’ve been trying to find time to read this week. I recently received the signed copy of Joshua Doetsch’s “Strangeness in the Proportion” I was lucky enough to snag, and I wish I had more time to focus on it. If you don’t know, Doetsch also wrote the lore for The Secret World, has been Lead Writer for the game since 2013, and has a list of other work. I usually don’t throw out recommendations, but I am very much enjoying the book and good horror writing can be hard to find.
While I love horror in general, I can be fairly picky about which writers I return to. If the story doesn’t grab me, if the characters are flat, if I’m not seeing something new, I walk away disappointed.
So, what do I look for in horror?
[I’m focusing on writing today, but many of these also apply to horror in games and movies. I might come off as telling people what to do here, and I don’t mean it that way. These are just things I value in horror stories. Plus, any list like this is going to have exceptions. If something feels right in the story, I’m going to enjoy it as a reader regardless.]
1. Blur reality.
Some of the best parts of a good horror story are in the moments where neither the reader nor the characters are exactly sure what’s real and what isn’t. Creating this sense of blurred reality is not an easy job since when you pick up a horror tale, you’re already expecting something awful to happen. Still, we read even more for the “how?” than only for the “what?” Let me spend some time wondering how much is truly going on and how much is in the characters’ heads.
2. Make me ask, “What if?”
Stephen King has mentioned in interviews that he often begins stories by asking himself, “What if?” While not every author writes from that starting point, it’s also a question I want to wonder about as a reader. The moment I’m asking this question, I’m viewing the story as something closer to me than just something happening to characters on the page. I’m injecting the tale into my own hypothetical reality, and it’s those stories that stick with a reader long after the book ends.
3. Not everything needs a reason.
This point may be personal preference, as I know plenty of folks who get annoyed if they can’t find the reasoning behind events. And indeed, I’m not advocating throwing whatever random plot point you feel like into the story. However, in some of my favorite stories not everything is explained.
Sometimes in life, bad things happen because they do. A well done story that acknowledges we don’t always know all the reasons things happen can sometimes be more gripping than any intricate explanation. This also takes away one safety net the reader has – “Oh, I never go there/do that/would be in that situation so I’d be safe.”
4. Give me real characters.
I don’t have to like every character – indeed, I probably shouldn’t since I don’t like everyone I meet in real life! But at least give me some depth, some reason to be invested in the characters. I don’t just love Stephen King’s books for the horror aspect, but also because he shows me characters I can get invested in. Give them some dimension, and by all that’s creepy please don’t write them doing things that are out of character. (It’s a huge pet peeve of mine.)
Try to remember your characters aren’t actors. (Well…unless they are!) What I mean by that is each character has their own goals and ways of looking at the world, right? Write them consistent with those goals and perspectives, don’t just write things happening because the plot needs it. If something needs to happen, at least find a way to make it a natural action by someone with a goal in mind.
5. Edit. PLEASE edit.
This might sound odd or obvious, and applies to any written work, but I have read plenty of published horror novels with typos and incorrect or confusing grammar. Spelling and grammar aren’t about me being a jerk, when they’re off it can take a reader out of the story as they try to guess what word you meant or who exactly is doing what. I know plenty of authors have an editor for that, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
6. Give me more than gore.
I have no problems with gore in a horror story. Sometimes it makes less sense to avoid than to just go with it. But – just like in movies – gore does not equal story. I’ve read novels that seemed to have a goal of getting to the blood as soon as possible, and staying on that train until the end. Eventually, the descriptions become boring. You don’t want descriptions in a horror story to get boring, ever.
7. Build things up slowly.
Make me wonder how bad things are going to get, and how fast they’ll get there. If I don’t have a good grounding of “normal,” I won’t be as rocked when things start going south. I realize this is a balancing act, as you also don’t want to bog down the story, but if you can introduce the horror gradually instead of just throwing the reader in you’re helping develop a sense of tension.
8. If all else fails, find some amazing artwork.
Ok, this one is tongue-in-cheek, but I’m in the club of adults who still get creeped out by the original illustrations in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Does not matter how many times I’ve heard the stories, those pictures!
So what do you look for in a horror tale?