Writing 101 is a series wherein I talk about the ins and outs of academic writing. I typically cover common misconceptions in writing papers and tips to improve your writing skills. This time I am going a different route and talking about writing fiction instead of essays. This will not be a permanent shift, but I do like having more options as I can talk about writing all day.
Horror is a genre that frequently annoys me. Horror stories, more often than not, pull on the overused tropes and trends present in the genre, like creepy children, jumpscares, and gore. I know I am not supposed to assume intention on the part of the author, but I get the distinct impression that these horror tropes are employed because they worked in another successful horror movie or the creators think the audiences will find it inherently scary. I get this impression because so many horror monsters and figures are designed to look scary, even if such designs make no sense in the story’s world.
It’s All About The Characters
Considering your audience is important but when creating the horror elements of your story asking what the audience will find scary is the wrong way to write horror. The first question to ask is “what do the characters fear?”
I know it sounds obvious, but the characters are the anchor of your story. The audience will not be invested in the horror if it is not personal to the characters. Similarly, they will not be invested in characters they do not care about, and will not be scared as a result. Lazy horror films tend to employ general stock characters, Joss Whedon made fun of this in Cabin in the Woods, or characters that are unlikeable jerks. The scares in these movies do not work because the audience is given no reason to care about the characters.
The protagonist of a story is the entry point into the narrative and its world. We want to care about the characters, get invested in their lives, and watch them learn and react to the world around them. To write a good horror story, you first need to create compelling characters, then make the horror personal to them. Do not consider what the audience finds scary. If we are invested in your characters, what is scary to them will be scary to us. So, how do you make the horror personal to your characters? Just answer the following questions:
What do they care about?
We all care about things and/or people in our lives. Give the character someone or something to care about and a range of emotions for expressing that care. Worry and fear are not the only ways to depict care in any story, and you can get some great results if you look outside of those two emotions for your horror story. Anger, obsession, stubbornness, arrogance, etc. are a myriad of ways for a character to demonstrate that they have strong feelings of attachment to someone or something, and the manifestation of that care does not have to present itself in a positive way.
What are they afraid of?
We all have things in our lives that frighten us. Everpresent anxieties that play through our minds when we least want to consider them. Show the audience what the character fears and an accompanying range of emotions for when they are confronted with the subject of their terror. Fear expresses itself in many ways. As the writer, you need to figure out how your character reacts to fear. Fight, flight, or freeze are acceptable, but you can mix them together as well. The character could put on a brave face, but lock up in the moment. They could run from their fear and fight anyone who gets in their way. You can also look outside of those typical fear responses. Perhaps, the character does not deal well with confrontation, so when confronted with their fears they push them aside, refusing to deal with them until it’s too late. They could get angry and lash out at the people around them. The characters could isolate themselves from anyone that could help them as they obsess over the thing that scares them. Fear responses are a great way to build and demonstrate your character’s fatal flaw, as fear can bring out the worst in us.
Put Them Together
Either question could make for a solid horror story on its own, but what if you put them together? What if the subject of your character’s fear crosses paths with the object of their care? What if the thing they fear is also the thing they care about? As I have said, we all have cares and fears. Great horror, the kind that lingers in the mind, comes from forcing the audience to connect the two in a meaningful way. You can achieve this lingering dread by making the compelling character confront that dilemma. This requires a bit more work from the writer, but the results can be dreadful and profound. I will avoid spoilers, but check out The Babadook for a good example of this combination in action. The subject of fear and the object of care are intrinsically linked in a brilliant way in the film. It should be required viewing for horror writers.
Horror is a genre that I want to see improve. We get dozens of new horror films every year that could use some of these ideas, and it would cost the writers nothing more than a little consideration. This genre is important because it makes us confront things about ourselves in the safe space of a movie, but if the writers and filmmakers put no thought into their work we get nothing out of it.
Note: I would like to thank RagnarRox for his help with this article. He is a frequent analyst of horror stories. Check out his YouTube series Monster of the Week for some unnerving chills and thoughtful insight.