Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Really Scares You?

According to the dictionary, horror is defined as "a painful, strong emotion caused by extreme fear, dread, repugnance, etc." Now, fear is defined as "an agitated feeling aroused by awareness of actual or threatening danger, trouble, etc." These two states of mind are intertwined and travel hand in hand, both in life and literature. The important questions that those of us who write horror need to ask ourselves are: How can I instill those feelings in my readers? What setting should I use? What type of character(s) should I focus on? What events should I include? All necessary points to consider. Let's explore each one.

How can we instill a sense of horror and fear in our readers?

It has been said by those wiser than I to 'write what you know'. We all know that statement can be taken literally, or not, depending on what you're writing. When discussing horror, however, what we need to do is 'write what the reader knows'. While it is true that not much surpasses fear of the unknown, it is often the things or people in our lives that we are most comfortable or feel safest with, that we can come to fear the most, depending on the circumstances. If you want to build a strong sense of impending danger in your reader's mind, begin with something familiar, something cozy, and lull them into feeling all warm and snuggly. Then? Take it away - take it all away. Leave them suspended in mid-air - alone and confused - and trust me, they'll be afraid. They will suddenly see an individual or a situation they have encountered countless times and breezed through as terrible and terrifying. Your plotline will accomplish this, so plan it out well beforehand. Make sure your sequencing is right and the flow is smooth. Make sure you don't come at them like a speeding train. After all, you don't want them jumping out of the way, do you...

What setting should I use?

Here again, I would stick with what your reader knows. Dark, dusty, seemingly haunted mansions at the top of a hill are creepy, for sure. But, how many of us have ever visited or lived in one? A city you've created has potential as a setting for a dark tale, but if you're going to use a real one, make sure you're accurate with street names, etc. For all you know, one or more of your readers was born there, and they'll know right away that the intersection of Third and Foster is in the middle of Lake 'whatever', so watch out for that. The city or town, or even the country can be of secondary importance though, if you use a setting like a deserted building, a home, an apartment complex, an alleyway..., you get the idea. It is possible to keep it simple and still give your reader second thoughts about taking that overlooked trash bag to the end of the driveway after dark, or going downstairs to try to find that flashlight after the power cuts off. The familiar and the comfortable - turn them into the remote and the deadly.

What character(s) should I focus on?

You can go different ways with this. Some writers include 'people' as horror characters, while others prefer the inclusion of 'creatures'. What you use character-wise is a matter of personal preference. Writing about vampires and/or zombies can immerse your reader in that 'other' world while they're reading your story, and that's great, because that's your goal. But, if you want the fear to stay with them long after they've put your book down, one suggestion would be to stay in the 'reader's' world.

Let me say though, that there's not a thing wrong with killer worms and giant squids, and I personally love reading stories like that. I especially enjoy movies that contain 40 foot man-eating ants and headless corpses chasing campers through dark woods. But, in all honesty, I have a greater fear of knowing I'm being stalked by someone I've never met, or coming home and finding the back door open when I know I closed it before I left. This having occurred the day after I read in the newspaper that several convicts escaped from the local jail and were armed and dangerous. Reality. Things that could 'really' happen. Scary? Oh yeah!

What events should I include?

This will depend on your plotline. Are you dealing with a stalker? Does he leave notes or little tokens for the victim? Are there anonymous phone calls? Knocks on the door in the middle of the night? These can be focal points or peripheral occurrences, depending on where your story is going. Being held captive in an unfamiliar location by person or persons unknown worked superbly well in a story I'm sure we're all familiar with because while there is a lot of the unknown, there is also the 'could happen' factor. Any occurrence that is unexpected and has an unknown or known yet terrifying potential outcome would be very workable. It all depends on what you want to do to whoever you want to do it to. However again, 'do it' to your reader. Make sure whatever events you include remain in their subconscious as a 'real' possibility.

People love to read scary stories. It's exciting, it's exhilarating really, especially if what they're reading about could actually happen at any time. So, have fun, and get your scare on...

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