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
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
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!
A BIGGER TENTACLE!
Have it eat someone!
Oooh! And now?
Have it eat MORE people!
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?
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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:
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- 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?
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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.
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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.
Reblogged this on Writing and Musing and commented:
I read Stephen King a lot as a teen and I’d like to think I learned a lot from his style of storytelling. I will have to check out some more horror novels and see what I can learn to improve my own writing.
I wrote a short poem for you. Take a look at the Token Death and let me know what you think. Thanks Barry
Another wonderful bit of advice. I would share this on Twitter, but hackers have taken over today… Wait, is that my Muse? What’s that? Write a story about hackers? Include fear in the mix?
Great post. Sharing it to a horror writer friend (and critique partner) Also, if you’re looking to explore new horror authors or listen to interviews of some you’ve read, check out the Taco Society channel on YouTube.
This is a challenging post for me because I HATE horror. Especially movies. The last horror movie I saw was The Ring, and it gave me bad dreams for years.
As a child I loved creepy stories (Goosebumps series, all the way), and I also loved making up scary stories. I wonder what happened, and if I can tap back into some of that without having to sleep with the lights on.
I’ve never posted a comment to you before but I just wanted to thank you for your excellent blog. It amuses and inspires. Don’t know how you have the time to do what you do in your non-virtual life, yet find the energy to host seminars, write books and write such an entertaining blog in the virtual, but your work is much appreciated by this woman’s fiction writer.
Awww thank you! Truth is you guys keep me going. I LOVE seeing you learn and grow and succeed and that is really the great joy of my life so it never feels like work (((HUGS))).
I respect horror fiction for the reasons you state, but I never felt the draw toward that kind of adrenaline rush. My life has always been full of RL stress, so I’ve been shying away from horror. Also, when I write darker stuff in my romance, readers get mad. Very mad 🙂
P.S. And perhaps it’s time to revisit the darker side of what makes us human.
Well done! Your theory about it’s not what’s in the story, but what the story does to the characters- that really makes us scared. Like Gone Girl/The Shining right? They made a person we knew and trusted into a psychopath.
YES!!! It is what the problem does to the characters that matters, no matter the genre.
Hmm, I need to apply this without the benefit on studying horror. I hate horror. Haven’t read it or watched it in over 15 years and probably never will again. I don’t like being scared, and I don’t like to spend nights looking over my shoulder and jumping at every little noise. Being a writer has given me an over-active imagination.
DH likes horror, but he hates rollercoasters. We all have our thing.
I can honestly say I haven’t seen too much of this is the romance novels I’ve been reading. Maybe it’s my author choices. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. Not saying more of it shouldn’t be there, but I sometimes wonder if this isn’t what readers in that genre want.
Not sure. I’ll have to think more on it.
Romance is all about fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of missing out. Fear of not getting the girl/guy.
I hadn’t thought of it that way… Excellent points! I guess I was still thinking Bag of Bones of Salem’s Lot.
Thank you, that helps me so much with the new book I’m writing. Fear of something lies in all of us and it’s up to the author to decide what that fear is in our characters we create and use that fear to either bring out the good or the bad in those characters. There is fear of something in all genres or the story is going to be very boring.
Geez, Kristen, you’re always poking your fingers in my eyes and prying them open so I can see what makes a story work. Aren’t you tired of doing that? 😉
The moment I saw the words “Horror Fiction”, I knew that I was going to Love reading this particular piece. I am a die-hard fan of horror fiction and movies, and I started writing in the first place by trying to write horror stories. Horror, as a genre, is a difficult one to dabble in, as I very well know, given that I read every single horror story and watch every single movie that I happen to come across; the great ones capture my heart, the goods ones give me ideas and the others tell me what I should Avoid while dabbling in horror.
Horror is too visceral, that writers must resort to that to get ideas across and that people like it that way, doesn’t bode well for humanity or our survival as a species. It shows me we haven’t changed since the stone age–we are still primitive thinkers but now we have destructive toys beyond our intellectual scope. It doesn’t appear that the human race will grow up before we off ourselves. The popularity of horror shows me we hit our mental evolution wall. This worries me greatly. Sure conflict is the corner stone of fiction, but must gore be the footing?
Reblogged this on Entertaining Stories and commented:
Kristen Lamb has a great post about the difference between real conflict and artificial conflict. And she even manages to use the horror genre to illustrate her points in time for Halloween.
This is great information. Thanks! I write middle-grade novels and am trying to make my next one in the series a bit scarier, so this is very timely.
A great analysis.
In a sense it comes down to simple logic: “love” is about “having” (and more often, “having” a chance to share something), and “fear” is the different forms of Not Having that. So of course they’re opposites.
And of course we say people just being happy isn’t much of a story– but people being eaten isn’t much better, without a sense of what they love, what they have to lose.
Which makes The Mist a pure example of the real joy of storytelling: playing the two off each other, to show how some characters find their own way to let their fears and loves destroy them, and others face them.
How could they *not* go together?
Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
Timely thoughts on good fiction taken from horror. Well done and lesson learned!
Thank you for this great post. It’s helped debug a story I’m working on. Awesome stuff! Sharing. 🙂
What? Humans are dark meat? I always assumed they were white meat, as in “long pork.”
Have you seen “Perfect Parents”? It’s not horror, but it does the escalation-of-the-situation thing quite well: it starts with atheist parents trying to get their daughter into a Catholic school and ends – well, I won’t spoil it, but there’s blackmail and bloodshed before the credits roll. Character decision -> unexpected consequence -> decision and so on, all in believable steps.
I haven’t read much horror since I was a teenager but even then I never found anything that so much as unsettled me. There aren’t many horror films that do anything for me either, at least not from Hollywood which focuses far too much on gore. The only thing that’s ever given me the heebees is the short film “Lights Out”. I know it’s been made into a full length feature film but I don’t feel it’s one that I’ll be going out of my way to watch. I have seen the trailer and for me, fleshing the story out ruined the impact.
Nicely done, Kristin. You nailed it, as always. When readers call my books “Horror” I’m so tempted to correct them (I write psychological thrillers). I don’t of course. But after reading your post, I understand why they might classify them as such. Thank you for enlightening me.
As always Kristen, great blog. I’m very conscious of writing what makes my characters tick during conflict, especially the antagonist. Now I’ll make sure I develop the protagonists reactions too without melodrama.
I was reading the comments above the reply and I agree with “Lights Out” being one of the most disturbing and horrific shorts I`ve ever seen. Another all time favourite of mine is “The Stand” and the “Exorcist”. The last one is fear related because, hell yeah, I`m afraid of demons and getting possessed so the fear factor works for me on that one. One of the best books that I would re-read over and over is The Dark Is Rising – Susan Cooper. The fear is the encroaching darkness and the evil that it hides. About people who you have trusted all your life not being who they are. That for me is a real fear. I read this book with the lights on and I was a teenager at the time.
Reblogged this on firefly465.
Thank you for giving us (me and my other horror writers) some credibility. I write psychological horror (have been compared to Lovecraft and Koontz) along with other genres, and diving into those deep fears, definitely enhances my romance, literary and contemporary fiction. I’m going to keep this post and when I get those comments that infer I’m not really a writer, and horror isn’t really literature – I’ll let you explain why they’re wrong.
Yes! Just did this on my book. Don’t need to do the – go rewrite after reading K’s blog – thing.
Anything Koonz is going to have some psychological thrill. Love him.
Great post. I’d never thought of it like this. Great insight.
Thought provoking post. I’ve always felt writing horror relies on psychology of the mind rather than gore to reallly stir me up. I write, well put words down, horror as well as genres skirting around it. Now you’ve got me wondering about whether I’m doing it right…shoot, if I’m not catastrophising about one thing, then I find a blog post to trigger another!!
Thanks for sharing this ?
I wonder if it’s really true we can’t feel fear and love simultaneously. For example, I might see an animal that shows clear signs of abuse, with a very hostile posture, and feel both wary/cautious, which is rooted in fear, but also compassion/pity, ropted in love.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the more intensely we feel one, the less we can feel the other, and the harder the transition?