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  • Writer's pictureCharles Harned

Writing Great Horror

Sticking with the Halloween theme, let's take a look at some of the methods used to make great horror movies and how they (maybe not so surprisingly) translate to writing horror fiction.

I love horror movies, and while there are plenty that are amazing and completely succeed at what they're trying to do, the genre seems to get flooded with somewhat lesser iterations that don't really stand out from the masses. Making a horror film that's genuinely scary and suspenseful but isn't completely derivative or played out is hard. Horror fiction seems to have a little more quality across the board. And to be fair, I haven't read as much of it as I wish were the case. So, I'm using the space below as a place to flesh out what techniques make horror films and fiction that pass the quality test.

I'm not a filmmaker or a screenwriter. Not yet. I borrowed the following tips that I expound on from an amazing article written and published by the AV Club. Click here to check out that article. It's great.

There are a few tenets left off the list that should go without saying. The evils we don't see are often scarier than the ones we do. Anticipation combined with the human imagination is many a time where the true horror lies. Darkness = the unknown = scary as hell. You can never go wrong with a bedazzled vampire (maybe I'm a little off on this one).


Tips to Make Great Horror

1. Use Space And Technique To Your Advantage: Spooky things happening in the background is one of the best ways to put a scene over the top. Likewise, using pregnant pauses and stretching out the time where characters are suspended in a fearful state pushes tension to the max. In horror fiction, these techniques can be adopted by having things happen that are seen from the reader's point of view or depicted for the reader but go unnoticed by the characters on the page. The reader knows something is coming to get them and the characters only notice when it's too late.

2. Gamble On Performance: With regards to horror films this means don't rely too much on effects and forget about the acting. Way too many horror movies do this and it's one of my biggest grievances with the genre. Let the actors be important to the final product, not just flesh bags waiting to get scared. This is even more important when considering written horror. At the end of the day, the characters make the story. The scariest, craziest idea will fall flat if there aren't compelling, well-written characters that make the reader care and keep the stakes genuine and high.

3. Relocate To An Interesting Time Or Place: As I've said before, horror is a genre full of redundancy. It's not necessarily critical to do something no one has ever done before - you might end up brainstorming an awfully long time if that's the case. With wholly original premises at a premium, be original with the setting or time period instead. After all, aren't most stories, regardless of medium, essentially offshoots of the same handful of basic plots? Throwing the concept into a relatively unique setting or point in time is essentially fulfilling the almighty "do it the same, but make it different" directive that screenwriters are so used to hearing. This is even easier in horror fiction where anything and anyplace past, present, or imagined is literally at the tip of your pen.

4. Borrow Whatever You Need: This is a continuation of the theme above. Embracing familiarity is a good thing. Established horror techniques are so oft-repeated because they work. Working in familiar tropes and tactics but then executing them in novel and interesting ways is the key to the game. This applies to both film and horror literature. How can you take what's been done a million times before and do it better? Here's some advice about writing great horror.

5. Take Your Time: It's important to not rush things. Build up a consistent and growing sense of dread before the big reveal. And there don't always need to be conventional scares along the way. Develop the tension and the stakes, let them grow throughout, and if all goes well the gruesome violence can be saved for the climax without letting readers or an audience feel like there was anything missing. The anticipation of surely awful things to come is often the biggest contributor to anxiety. A reader or viewer left in suspense is one that will usually find it impossible to look away.

6. Steep Fake Horror In Real Horror: The biggest scares come from the kind of scenarios we dread or deal with in our everyday lives. Using real life fears and questions as the basis for your story makes horror relatable and increases the stakes because the reader or viewer can truly put themselves in the character's shoes. Whether it's the fear of a burglary in the middle of the night or committing to someone that might have disastrous character flaws, using realistic themes and scenarios helps keep the audience engaged.

7. Be Self-Aware Without Resorting To Self-Parody: The AV Club writers make a very good point: simply creating a parody of established horror is no longer a fresh take. Scream did it way back in the late nineties - satirizing the clichés of slasher films while still pulling off a great edition to the horror genre. Since then, plenty of other films have gone the route of either poking fun at the genre or taking themselves so seriously that they completely miss the point of what their work is all about. Horror fiction is different but the same premise applies. Understand what your story is and use clever twists to make it unique. Satisfy the audience by delivering what they expect given the subgenre, story type, etc., but don't pander to them.

8. Go Classical: The techniques that scared audiences a half century ago still scare people today. In film, this often means employing abrupt sounds and visual cues to jolt viewers and then building on that with a rapid, relentless escalation of suspense. All of this is designed to produce anticipation for the big reveal. As good horror fans know, it's the moment right before the big reveal that's the scariest. Horror fiction has similar tried and true methods. Twists keep the reader guessing, and the big reveal is often teased a little at a time, stretching the suspense until the reader can practically no longer stand it.

9. When In Doubt Crank Up The Intensity: Ebb and flow - calm scenes interspersed with pockets of violence - is common in horror films and books alike. You never know when the calm is going to dissolve into a scene of sheer nightmare-inducing panic. And that's great. But the flow without the ebb can work as well. This method is all about starting slow and gradually speeding up, jolting the tension and suspense higher and higher without the typical intermittent calm scenes until a horrific climax is reached. While The Shining may not be a perfect example, it does a good job of starting fairly normal and then devolving into ever more terrifying madness as the evil in the hotel takes over.

There you have it. These nine tips apply to both horror films and literature and can turn another dull or derivative iteration of the genre into something that stands out. Comment below or email me at! Stay tuned for more to come and don't forget to subscribe.

Happy Halloween!

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