Write to Scare Yourself by Alexander Gordon Smith
I love horror for a million different reasons, but my favourite of these is that horror is the only genre, I think, where literally anything can happen. Horror works by breaking down the rules—the rules of science, psychology, religion, etc—and it’s up to you how you rewrite those rules. Horror gives you an incredible amount of freedom when you are writing, it allows you to constantly push and surprise yourself. If anything is possible, then the only limits are your imagination.
But horror is also hard to get right, especially when you’re writing for a young adult audience. Back when our only source of entertainment was stories around the fire, it was fairly easy to scare kids. Everything was new, nothing was cliché. Now, though, kids have seen EVERYTHING. I know, from doing events in schools, that most of my audience will have watched scary movies, like really scary movies, even when they’re ten, eleven years old. They play terrifying video games, too, and the stories they tell each other on the playground… Well, let’s just say that I’ve had seven-year-olds tell me Creepy Pastas that they’ve found online that have left me terrified. Scaring readers these days is hard. Concepts and imagery that once upon a time would have been nightmarish have become familiar, and familiarity makes them stale. Kids know these tropes and clichés because they have seen them before, and to know something is to take away the inherent horror of it.
So how do we make horror scary? Well, I’m still learning the answers to that! But the best piece of advice I have ever received is this: if you want people to be afraid, you have to be afraid too. Fear. It’s one of our most powerful emotions. Once upon a time, experiencing fear meant the difference between life and death, it was the emotion needed for survival. These days, when we’re not constantly running from predators, fear doesn’t play as vital a role in day-to-day life (well, for the lucky amongst us, anyway, there are plenty of people for whom terror is still very real). But it is still an immensely powerful emotion, and a fantastic tool for writers.
I think the trick, though, is never to write about what other people think is scary. It just won’t work, because if you’re not terrified of what you’re writing about, then how can you expect other people to be? Fear is universal, yes, but fear is also very personal too. If you have a fear of, say, needles, then write a horror story with needles in it. Or flying, or roaches, or clowns. You may not feel very comfortable writing the book, but that’s the point! Because fear is also highly contagious. If you walk into a room and somebody in that room is terrified of something, then you start to feel it too, it creeps inside, it infects you. Once upon a time that transmission of fear would have kept us alive—if one member of the group sensed a predator then everyone else had to pick up on that very, very quickly. But it still works. If you are genuinely afraid of what you are writing about then that fear oozes from the book, it creeps inside your readers.
Whenever I’m starting a new novel, I use the following technique. I sit down and write a list of my worst fears. Fears change as you go through life, so the list is constantly refreshed. I write down as many fears as I can think of until I find one that makes me stop, that makes the gooseflesh erupt, that makes me feel cold. As soon as that happens, I know I’ve found a starting point. With Escape From Furnace it was the thought of being locked up. With The Fury it was the fear of being chased. With my new book, Hellraisers, it was the terror of not being able to breathe (I’m asthmatic). Once I know the fear, it’s simply a case of asking ‘what if’. What if I was sent to a prison full of monsters. What if I was chased by friends and family who wanted to kill me. What if I could make a deal with the devil to cure my asthma. I know, each time, that the fear will be real to me, so it will be real to those characters.
It’s what I think they mean by writing what you know. I don’t have to write about being a 37-year-old writer in England, but I do have to find an emotional connection to the story. With horror, it’s so easy, because that emotional connection is fear, and we all know how that feels.
And remember, you don’t just have to use your fears as the subject for the story, use them to construct the story too. They can exist as fleeting references, subtle shades that induce a creeping terror in your readers. If you are scared of cockroaches, use insect-like description: ‘Fear scuttled up her spine’, ‘he stared at her with black, emotionless eyes, a spider’s eyes’, ‘her thoughts escaped like cockroaches, vanishing into the shadows’, etc. If you are afraid of drowning, then use this terror carefully in your description: ‘He couldn’t seem to remember how to draw a breath, like he was submerged in dark water’, ‘she fought against the current of her thoughts’, etc. You’re not using your fears literally, but they are still there in your writing, and the reader picks up on them. They are arguably more effective this way, because a reader will grow uneasy, sensing horror there even though nothing horrific might actually be happening.
There’s so much more I could say about building a sense of dread in your writing—and I may come back with another guest post—but I’ll end with this. Horror isn’t a genre, it is an emotion. And it isn’t simply fear or disgust. You can’t show an exploding head or a disfigured monster stepping out of the wardrobe and call it horror. Those things might give the reader a quick fright, yes, or make them throw up their dinner. But they don’t necessarily make for a good horror book.
In fact, the only person genuinely capable of inducing a feeling of pure horror is the reader. You have to make them do the hard work, and the best way to do that is by using mystery. Plant a seed of horror in their mind, a promise that something bad is coming, and then build the suspense by holding back that event, by using red herrings. With every word they will be waiting for something to happen, imagining it, fearing it. They will be creating their own sense of horror and anticipation. The end result will hopefully live up to their expectations, but even if it doesn’t they will be left with that sense of having gone through something terrifying. You’re giving readers the tools to create their own horror.
And it goes without saying that a good horror book, like any book, is only as good as its characters. If you create characters that feel real, that people believe in, that you grow to love, then the horror of the story will feel so much more immediate, and personal. You’ll follow those characters through hell just to find out what happens to them.
So take a deep breath, hurl yourself into the nightmare of your own fears, and great things will happen…
Thanks so much for inviting me back to Adventures in YA Publishing! :-)
About the Book:
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads
About the Author:Hellraisers. He lives in the UK with his girlfriend and his three daughters – one of whom is three months old!
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-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers