How Horror Fiction Can Make Us Better Writers
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.
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).
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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:
- 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.