May
18

Gray Matter – 13 Tips for Writing Horror Fiction

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by Robert Gray

1. Read, write, repeat -
Enough said.

2. Don’t get lost in woods -
Some writers prefer to plot their story before word one goes down, while others simply let the characters and situation drive the story. Whatever your preference, you need to have at least a vague idea of where you want your story to go, or else you’ll have characters running around chapter after chapter like chickens without heads. At best, you’ll waste unnecessary time during the rewrite; at worst, well, there’s always that other story you were thinking of starting.

3. The better the hook, the tastier the meat -
Your hook is the Big Concept you’re trying to sell; that razor-sharp, serrated edge that cleaves its way through everything else in the story. The hook is easy enough to create. Say the words what if … and then fill in the blank. What if … an impenetrable dome came down over a small town (Under the Dome by Stephen King)? What if … a family of inbred maniacs terrorized a group of tourists in the woods (Off Season by Jack Ketchum)?

4. Put flesh onto your characters before you rip it off -
Readers want characters they can relate to, characters they don’t mind spending a few hundred pages with. But most of all, characters that your reader will care about, because no matter how good the story, if your readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t care about the story that surrounds your characters.

5. This evening’s tour guide through Hell is …
Think back to those great stories that inspired you to become a writer. Sure, there were memorable characters, some moments of pure terror, joy, love, hate … but there was also that setting, so perfectly realized that you were there. If you can’t take your readers there, then how can you possibly expect them to get lost in your story?

6. You’re not gonna believe what happened next -
You may have the best murder scene on page 157, but unless your readers are interested in pages 1-156, they’ll never see it. You need to constantly keep that carrot called “What Happens Next” dangling in front of your readers’ faces. If you get stuck, remember this simple formula: Problem = Solution + Bigger Problem. In other words, keep raising the stakes.

7. It hurts to be dead -
We live in a highly sensory world, and there are plenty of other stimulants competing against your story. So the more your readers can feel your story the better. One thing to keep in mind is you should always go for the specific image over the vague one. Ambiguity and abstraction are the surest ways to a flaming death.

8. Study your enemy -
No fiction writer is an expert in everything that goes into his or her story. Unfortunately, this is compounded a hundred times over for horror writers. Unless, that is, you’re a zombie, serial killer, vampire, or … I think you’re getting my point. It’s those little details research provides that separates a horrific scene from a laughable one.

9. Don’t rush, even if it’s right behind you -
You’ve spent all this time building characters, developing intricate plot points, and creating this fully realized world for your characters to move around in. Often the tendency is to rush to the end once you’ve developed everything else. Don’t.

10. Kill your darlings –
One of the greatest joys in writing is coming up with the perfect passage. You know the one, where you stand up from your desk, throw open your window and yell to the world that you have arrived. Often enough, though, these precious darlings offer nothing substantial to your story. If you find any (they’re there, trust me), you should ask yourself–does this work in the story, or is it only self-gratifying? If it’s the later, save it for Twitter.

11. It Lives Part 2 –
Write each book as if it is the only book you’re ever going to write. Don’t save good ideas for another book. This is especially true for books in a series. Yes, if you’re writing a series you’ll want to spread the major storyline over a number of books, but each book must stand alone as a great story.

12. No admittance after dusk -
Just because you finished your story doesn’t mean it’s ready for primetime. You’d be insulted if you just shelled out nine bucks to see a movie that still had actors fumbling for words and some blue screen showing, wouldn’t you? Well, if your story isn’t polished, an agent or editor will be just as insulted. We make mistakes; it’s human. But that doesn’t give you permission to be lazy.

13. The evil twin -
There’s one Peter Straub, one Anne Rice, and one Neil Gaiman (though he seems to be everywhere at once, so I suspect he keeps several clones locked away in his closet.) Just because these and other popular authors sell huge numbers of books doesn’t mean taking their ideas is going to translate into dollar signs for you. Write your own story, in your own words.

Categories : Writing Horror

Comments

  1. All of these are excellent points, beautifully and succinctly stated. Dan Taylor also has an excellent article at Writer’s World that echoes some of these points, but not nearly as many. One point you both make is that the reader must be able to relate to the characters. Thinking about that made me realize that that is perhaps why Stephen King’s works are so popular. They are not as well thought-out or as beautifully phrased or as emotionally and intellectually deep as the works of other writers, but the main characters are always very average, middle class people from middle class neighborhoods and small towns caught up in fantastic situations. Therefore, average middle class people from middle-class neighborhoods and small towns can relate to them and ask themselves “What if this happened to me? What would I do if suddenly fire-breathing frogs started raining from the sky or if the airliner taking me to my aunt’s funeral suddenly flew into another dimension?” Mr. Gray raises some wonderful points that should make all of us aspiring horror writers do some serious navel-gazing about our chosen art.

  2. Excellent tips here! Thank you very much.
    If I may be so bold, I would like to add one more. Another good item to check on when starting your gruesome tale is book title and content. There are thousands of books out there! (yep…it’s true. Been to a library so can confirm this) and even though your book or short story sprung from your magnificant brow, doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t been done before in some form or another.
    Steven King wrote ‘Under the Dome’ and later learned The Simpsons beat him to it. Ironically, I wrote and published a short novella called ‘One for the Road’ only to find out after the ink was dry and the type-setting completed there is another book called this–well, many actually…but more specifically one by Stephen King.
    Yeesh. (insert painful wince here)
    I of course meant in no way to copy any of Mr. Kings idea’s or title, and luckily the two books are not similiar, but just kind of an FYI, writers.
    Hope that helps!

    Steve

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