Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: how to write horror

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson

Since we are coming up on Halloween, I’d like to take a moment to talk about my favorite genre—horror. I can’t get enough of it. It is a genre that fascinates me simply because I believe it is the most difficult genre to write. Sure it was probably easier back in the days that movie audiences ran screaming from the man in a really bad plastic ant outfit. But these days? As desensitized as we have become? Unsettling people is no simple task.

That’s why I’d like to talk about it today because no matter what type of fiction we write, we can learn a lot from what horror authors do well.

Powerful fiction mines the darkest, deepest, grittiest areas of the soul. GREAT fiction holds a mirror to man and society and offers messages that go beyond the plot.

Elisabeth Kubler Ros once stated:

There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.

This means, the more we understand fear, the deeper our writing becomes, the more meaningful, visceral, and profound. In love stories, fear might be of being alone, of never finding “the one” or even losing “the one.” In a literary, the fear can be of remaining the same, or of regressing, or of failing to evolve and learn the critical lesson provided by the story problem.

Fear is the lifeblood of fiction because conflict is always generated by fear. The protagonist wants something BUT THEN… The more intense the fear? The higher the stakes become? The faster the reader turns the pages.

What Horror Says About Conflict

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 7.00.56 AM

Here is where we need to be careful. There is a fine line between a bad situation versus authentic conflict. This line makes the difference between a meh novel and something people hold onto and read and reread. It is what makes the difference between a B horror movie that is utterly forgettable, versus a horror staple that endures for generations.

In horror, bad situations can be monsters or an ax-wielding psycho, but, without conflict added in, it quickly devolves into a sort of wash, rinse, repeat. Oh, he chopped up a teenager! Now two teenagers! Now he skinned them and danced in a woman suit made from their flesh! This is the basest form of horror, the horror that depends on shock value (gore).

And before anyone says, “But that is horror, it doesn’t apply to me!” Be careful. I get a lot of new fiction that it is simply bad situation after bad situation—and another car chase—and the reason this falls flat is that the “badness” is purely external. The characters are passively receiving “bad things happening” and the writer leaves it there.

So what makes it conflict and not just a bad situation?

Monsters & Men

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 8.39.51 AM

I liken humans to a tea cup. Whatever we are filled with is what will spill out when we are rattled.  When the heat is on (story problem) do we rise to the occasion or is our darker self revealed?

A great example of this is Stephen King’s The Mist. Sure it is a monster story. Scary strange mist, creatures in the mist, tentacles, blood, OMG! And if King had made the focus of the story the aliens, we would have a pretty forgettable movie.

Oooh a giant tentacle!

What now?

A BIGGER TENTACLE!

What now?

Have it eat someone!

Oooh! And now?

Have it eat MORE people!

ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

You can clearly see how this would have become a seriously tedious story if it simply relied on a string of “worsening” situations. But King is too smart for that. No, he appreciated what I talked about a moment ago. Sure humans are a nice enough bunch so long as there is food and shelter and the power works. But take away the conveniences. Scare people, really scare them and we get to see who they really are.

We take that external problem and make it internal.

The source of conflict (and in this case horror) has far less to do with the aliens outside and much more to do with what that outside problem does to the people trapped in the grocery store. We see the characters fall all along the spectrum. The ordinary and unremarkable cashier risking his life to help others contrasted against the “good Christian” woman escalating to full scale cult leader (human sacrifice to appease the beasts outside included) in less than 24 hours.

The monsters inside become far scarier than whatever is outside.

If we think about it, this is what makes for a good ghost story, too. It is less about what the ghost is or isn’t doing and more about what it is revealing about those being tormented. A fantastic example of this is Prisoner of Hell Gate which I recommend any time, but especially for some really great Halloween reading.

Strand a boat full of college students on an island where Typhoid Mary died and sit back and watch the fireworks. Again, the horror is less to do with the island and more to do with what the peril brings out in the people.

I also recommend Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Dean Koontz’s What the Night Knows.

This Applies to ALL Good Fiction

But as I mentioned, this “turning the external internal” is what makes ALL great fiction. Toss in a problem then watch what it does to the people around it. In Big, Little Lies (general fiction) a Kindergarten schoolyard rumor escalates to murder. The story really has nothing to do with the murder and more to do with how a simple little rumor has the power to undo lives. It is the rumor that brings out the best and the worst in people.

Fiction is about problems and then putting on the pressure. The story problem serves as a crucible. We can make our story forge so hot it rivals the surface of the sun, but unless we toss the character(s) in it? Doesn’t matter how hot it is. It is our job (no matter the genre) to poke and prod and expose that which people fear. Hone in on the pain points and THAT is what makes for dimensional writing from the fear of burying your own child (Steele Magnolias) to the fear of being invisible (Fried Green Tomatoes) to the fear of being powerless (The Labyrinth).

Writers are brokers of fear 😉 .

What are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite horror books/authors? I am a HUGE Koontz fan. For those who maybe eschew horror, can you at least see how these tools might enrich your fiction?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out the NEW Plotting for Dummies class below!

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes TOMORROW!

 

SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

This class is going to cover:

  • How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
  • What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
  • How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
  • What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
  • How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
  • How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
  • How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
  • How can a blog help you sell more books?
  • How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.

Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

 

~*~

Kait Nolan is stuck in an office all day, sometimes juggling all three of her jobs at once with the skill of a trained bear—sometimes with a similar temperament. After hours, she uses her powers for good, creating escapist fiction. This Mississippi native has something for everyone, from short and sweet to Southern contemporary romance to action-packed paranormal—all featuring heroes you’d want to sweep you off your feet and rescue you from work-day drudgery. When not working or writing, this reformed Pantser is hanging out in her kitchen cooking and wishing life were a Broadway musical.

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons
Debbie Johannson WANA Commons

Fear is the most important tool in any writer’s toolbox. Fear is the beating heart of conflict, no matter the genre. Fear of death. Fear of losing love, not finding love, not recognizing love. Fear of change. Fear of remaining the same. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novella The Road, the story was less about a fear of death and more about the fear of survival at the expense of one’s humanity. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores the fear of continuing generational curses.

In Winter’s Bone, Woodrell examines fear of family, what it takes to possibly betray family and risk death by turning on kin. In Virginia Woolf’s classic Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf probes the fear of being meaningless. Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World explores the fear of government, the tendency of the masses to devolve to mediocrity, and the dangers of society that only exists to seek empty pleasures and instant gratification.

Suffice this to say that I believe all great works (even outside of Horror) tap into our deepest primal fears, probe them, open them, expose them and maybe even (if we are fortunate) give us a glimpse of a cure.

Kevin continues today with a final word about horror.

****

We’ve discussed many things in the past few days about why the horror genre is important, why writing it is important and hard, but I’d like to offer this final thought: if we expand our definitions of horror past chainsaw wielding maniacs and human centipedes, we find that horror, at the root of it all, is often about a quest into the unknown.

As I’ll detail in one of my workshops at WanaCon, almost all the horror plots involve some level of discovery, penetrating the unknown. So horror exists not only because of mankind’s universal fears and a desire and NEED to deal with those fears, horror exists because there exist those special folks – horror writers – who are consumed with the desire to KNOW things, to ask questions that others would never think of asking, or, as the case may be, never dare ask.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, about why some of us blessed (cursed?) folks are drawn to writing horror:

“As you get ready to leave, think about this…or brood upon it:

Unknown.
Unknown.

The Story of “Little Miss Nobody”

On July 6th, 1944, the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus was giving a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, before 7,000 paid customers. A fire broke out; 168 persons died in the blaze and 487 were injured. One of the dead, a small girl thought to be six years old, was unidentified. Since no one came to claim her, and since her face was unmarred, a photograph was taken of her and distributed locally and then throughout the U. S. Days passed, weeks and months passed, but no relative, no playmate, no one in the nation came forward to identify her. She remains unknown to this day.

The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walls of the tunnel vision we develop as  adults, bust it wide for a little while, to provide a single powerful spectacle for the third eye (our imagination). The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, (the reader), for a little while, a child again.

And the horror writer himself/herself?

Someone else looks at that item about Little Miss Nobody – still unidentified – and says, “Jeez, you never can tell, can you?” and goes onto something else. But the fantasist begins to play with it as a child would, speculating about children from other dimensions, about doppelgangers, about God knows what else.

It’s a child’s toy, something bright and shiny and strange. Let us pull a lever and see what it does, let us push it across the floor and see if it goes rum-rum-rum or wacka-wacka-wacka. Let us turn it over and see if it will magically right itself again.

In short, let us have our Fortian rains of frogs and people who have mysteriously burned to death while sitting at home in their easy chairs; let us have our vampires and our werewolves. Let us have Little Miss Nobody, who perhaps slipped sideways through a crack in reality, only to be trampled to death in  a rush from a burning circus tent.

“It’s the best set of electric trains a boy ever had,” Orson Welles once said of making movies; the same can be said of making books and stories. Here is a chance to bust that tunnel vision wide open; bricks flying everywhere so that, for a moment at least, a dreamscape of wonders and horrors stands forth as clearly and with all the magical reality of the first Ferris wheel you ever saw as a kid, turning and turning against the sky.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig

“Someone’s dead son is on the late movie. Somewhere a foul man – bogeyman! – is slouching through the snowy night with shining yellow eyes. Boys are thundering through autumn leaves on their way past the library at four in the morning, and somewhere else, in some other world, even as I write this, Frodo and  Sam are making their way toward Mordor, where the shadows lie. I am quite sure of it.” ~Stephen King, Danse Macabe

This is the best way to end my series, I think. I’ve tried to say some very noble things about the importance of the horror genre, and how it’s just as valid as any other genre, and why writing good horror is just as difficult as writing the next Great American Novel.

But all those comments come from my critical, analytical side (where I live every day as an English teacher), and all my own noble and worthy writing goals have become very rooted in my subconscious. What really pushed me toward the horror genre to begin with was the eternal, burning question: Why? and its inevitable follow up: What if…?

And for me?

The horror genre, the genre of the fantastic and strangely beautiful wonders and horrors, simply offered me the most room to play in. I could write a story about a father mourning the loss of his son, and, gripped by guilt, how he goes and sits next to a pond to watch the ducks, and maybe somebody rides by on a bicycle, and then through some heavy exposition – or through the symbolism of a burning sunset – our grieving father works through some resolution, gaining closure as he finally forgives himself.

But that’s just not me.

Cause I really like the idea of his dead son being on the late night movie, reaching through a very special and strange television screen….

Somewhere deep in my own little Twilight Zone.

******

THANK YOU, KEVIN! *does cabbage patch dance* Cabbage Patch Dolls. Talk about creepy (and yes I had them anyway).

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself holding back in your own writing? Afraid to go to the dark places? What other works (horror or not) do you think did a really fabulous job of exploring our fears? Why did they rattle you? What made you uncomfortable? Did you find relief at the end?

I LOVE hearing from you, and I know Kevin will, too. Ask him your questions. Tell him your fears. Comments for guests get double weight in the contest. Btw, I will announce September’s winner next week. Too slammed with WANACon right now to do it properly. Ah, the contest…

Which is…

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Horror Author Kevin Lucia
Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Kevin Lucia has worked as an Editor for Shroud Magazine and a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and is now an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror ChannelHis podcast “Horror 101” is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify and his short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English at Seton Catholic Central High School and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

WANACon is THIS WEEKEND!!! Day One and Day Two are for sale separately so you can choose if you only can fit part of the conference. Just a note: A LOT of major authors sacrificed time for no or little pay to pay it forward and offer an affordable and easily accessible conference for those who need one and WANA is extremely grateful to have them.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

AGAIN, THIS WEEKEND!!!! Get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE for $149 and all recordings for anything you miss or need to hear again. Sign up today, because seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.