by ROBERT GRAY
It’s happened to all of us: You’ll be reading a horror story that starts off great, great characters, great storyline, even a great monster that scares the hell out of you in Chapter 1, but as you move through the story, the monster gets less scary. By the end—if you’ve made it that far—you decide the book wasn’t very good at all. What happened? In many cases, the monster that roamed the story was overexposed. Effects that worked once didn’t work on you again. After the umpteenth death, you figured the monster was out of stamina, then it kills another dozen people, and at this point, you’re just rolling your eyes. Or worse, you feel like you’ve just been robbed twenty-four bucks, or whatever that book cost, because you paid good money to be scared and that didn’t happen.
The more times your monster appears, the more careful you should be about breaking that spell you’ve worked so hard to weave over your readers. Give your monster too much presence, and you run the risk of making your monster laughable. In order to find that perfect balance of how much your monster should appear in your story, you must study a lot of horror, both novel and film. You need to find what works for you and what comes off as cliché, boring or just flat out silly. Look back to those lasting works, classics like Dracula and Frankenstein. Compare how little Dracula appears in Stoker’s novel versus how frequent Frankenstein’s monster appears in Shelley’s work. Which one works better for you? Which one is scarier? If you ask me, Frankenstein’s monster became a legend more from Boris Karloff than Mary Shelley.
Even bad horror is good for the beginning horror writer. Bad horror often provides more insight than the good stuff does. A well-written monster is hard to imitate because those skilled authors know exactly how to hypnotize you without you realizing it. In bad horror, it’s easy to see where the story goes wrong.
Because horror movies almost always reveal too much, it’s sometimes easier to find flaws than it is in fiction. On the other hand, with good horror movies it’s often easier to visualize effective techniques that you can bring to your story. Look to modern horror movies like The Blair Witch Project, which uses very subtle yet very effective hints to create fear. Compare that to the comedy Freddy vs. Jason in which the monsters get most of the screen time. Do I have to ask which one is scarier?
Keep in mind that while you are trying to instill fear into your reader, you are also trying to move your story along and hold the reader’s attention. If your monster is integral to the overall plot, you’d do best to pose big questions about your monster and answer them a little a time, stringing your reader along. Give the reader too many answers too fast, and you’ll have a third act full of characters running around in circles, not doing much of anything.
Here the old mantra of reading outside your genre can help greatly. Consider looking at some of literature’s greatest monsters, characters like the great white leviathan from Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The Pequod and the reader don’t finally encounter Moby Dick until the end of the novel, but the whole time Melville is finely compounding that suspense, mostly through Ahab’s lunacy over finding his nemesis.
What about the serial killer Anton Chigurh — his name’s sugar? — in Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel No Country for Old Men? McCarthy builds suspense by having Chigurh murder off nonessential characters, working his way towards the main characters like pieces on a chessboard. You can do much worse than to emulate McCarthy’s technique.
So, unless you’re filming porno, please try not to expose your monster too much. And as much as you’ve probably heard this advice, you’re gonna hear it again: To write effectively you need to read a lot and write a lot. Monster building is just another reason why.