Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writer's Workshop: Horror Writing

Hey, everyone. I'm hosting T-giving tomorrow. I do every year. My family had a tradition of taking in all their friends who didn't have family nearby or were single and otherwise wouldn't cook a turkey. It's a tradition I really enjoy and a chance to give people little leftover containers to take home and enjoy the turkey overdose in good measure. Today, I'm making apple crumble pie, rum brownie pie, and pumpkin cheesecake, and managing to edit "The Thicket." (It's my day off from work). But, I thought I'd pop on this little informative post today. Enjoy!

I might be the blind leading the blind. I’ve never taken a class on how to write horror, although my major was English and creative writing from junior high through college. I have yet to be paid for my publication of horror, although I’m vigorously working to take it out of the “hobby” category and into the “professional” arena, finally (and thanks to your encouragement).

I’ve been a part of writing critique groups over the years and accumulated all kinds of helpful knowledge by instinct and observation. I want to share it with ya’all because I know that almost all my followers are closet writers. I see potential in each of you and your writing and want to encourage you to take your writing more seriously and do something with it, whether it’s short stories for your blog, letters of appreciation to family members and friends, or pursuing getting published.

I’ve had a hard time finding a critique group for horror, so if any of you are writing horror fiction and want to pass scenes for editing back and forth, let me know ( I’m always receptive to input and I adore helping people figure out their strengths and how to showcase them.

Here’s a list of some “no’s” and “yes’s” that I’ve developed over the years of writing horror:

Passive versus active wording.

No: “She felt her heart pounding.” (We don’t need to know that she felt it. If her heart pounded and she’s conscious, she felt it.)
Yes: “Her heart pounded wildly.”

No: “His fist was knotting in her hair.” (avoid “was” and "that")
Yes: “His fist knotted in her hair.”

Too little information (aka, nouns need adjectives)

“The room was dusty and dirty.” (Like grandma’s? Like an old library? Where the heck are we, by the way?)
Yes: “Layers of dust caked the counters, carrying the musty scent of a kitchen left unattended, possibly for decades.”

There’s too little information, and too much…

No: “He passed by the first door, turned on his heel and studied the next, and then the next. Pushing a door open, he wondered if he should enter, but turned and continued on. Every door was closed, except the next one. He decided to stop and peer inside.” (Are you out of breath just reading this in your head? We don’t need every single action of a tedious task.)
Yes: “With over a dozen doors to choose from, Stuart walked the length of the corridor; stopping occasionally to be certain the rooms were free of occupants."

Why are they that way? What motivates them?

No: “Bart didn’t want to enter the barn because it was dark. (Use these moments of personal challenge to provide some insight into their character and his dilemma by explaining why.)
Yes: “Bart paced before the barn, fighting the internal battle that he’d fought since he was six years old; fear of the dark. He knew he must enter, but he also knew it would be pitch black. And which scared him more, the unseen contents within the barn or the creature lurking in the pasture coming ever closer?”

Keep your senses—all six of them!

“It started to rain and the room became dark.” (Set the mood—use the senses, make it real and atmospheric, in other words, put us in the storm.)
Yes: “The first plinking drops of rain were followed by a full-out pounding on the tin roof. The arriving storm brought with it a cloak of darkness, matching the mood of the family inside.”

Make it terrifying.

No: “The monster was large and intimidating.” (For heaven’s sake—larger than what? More intimidating than what? Give us a reference point and show how it intimidates by expression. And try very hard not to use “was”--passive)
Yes: “It loomed over her, swinging its beefy arms and casting a black shadow of icy cold.”

Who the heck are we talking about?

No: “She went to the store and peered into the window, her belly clenched in fear. It appeared she was the last person in the world. Everyone was gone and she remained all alone, nothing but her trusty cat to keep her company.” (Too many pronouns (six)! Occasionally insert a name, try not to use so many “her’s” and “she’s”)
Yes: Betsy went to the store and peered into the window, belly clenched in fear. With everyone gone, it felt like the end of the world. If I weren’t for her trusty cat, she’d probably go insane.” (two pronouns, one name)

One thing to remember about writing horror is that it involves three elements that must be the focus:

Characters: These must have a fatal flaw, some awful weakness, some inner strength that has yet to be challenged.

Mood/atmosphere: The five senses, making the most of the location, and putting us in that place where things are happening.

Fear: Some universal fear that we all can relate to. For every action, there is a reaction that needs to be shown and not told. If a woman is afraid of someone following her down an alley, there's no need to tell what's going on in her head. Show it! "She looked over her shoulder again and again as her pace sped up. Still, the dark figure pursued her. Angie broke into a run, desperate to reach her car."

I plan to write more posts in the near future about writing horror to help refine our skills. In writing this, I’m reminded to go over my recent editing and be sure I’ve adhered to the rules I’ve just touted. I believe these skills when applied can help even regular post writing to turn an informative subject into something more compelling. I've found when you have passion for a subject, it makes it easy to elaborate. I enjoy public speaking and one reason I do is that I choose subjects I love and so talking about it comes easily. If you pick a subject for a post, decide if you find it humorous, compelling, scary, informative, or curious, and write from that attitude and it will change the entire tone of the post. I have the feeling a great majority of you don't need this advice--your blogs are already thoughtfully written, but I hope that for anyone who's uncomfortable with writing or reading this and thinking of starting a blog, you realize that everyone has a story and that alone makes a blog!


  1. These are fantastic tips. I'm not a writer by any means, but would always like to improve the stories I blog about. I'm going to print these to help me in my future writings.
    Happy Thanksgiving from me and Mike.

  2. Hey Julie;
    Hope you and Mike and your families have a fantastic T-giving weekend! I hope to do one of these posts a week to help strengthen our skills. It's funny, but writing those out made me more aware of them in my own editing today, so it's helpful all around!

  3. Wonderful tips! :) Wishing you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving! I'm hosting too I'm taking a break from cooking! I need wine! :)

  4. I just realised you would be a great teacher!Brightest blessings and have a great time tomorrow with your friends!

  5. Thank ya'all! Happy Thanksgiving and Georgina, although you don't celebrate it where you are, I do give thanks for having you as a my friend :-)

  6. great tips. i have always struggled with creative writing. i majored in fine art, but attended a liberal arts campus and i hated classes where i had to write.

  7. oh, i want to wish you and your family a fabulous turkey day! all
    those goodies you're making sound yummy. you'll have to give me the recipe for that rum brownie pie, num, num.

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  9. Sandra;
    I use a frozen store bought pie shell.
    Take 2 oz unsweetened chocolate (or you can use 6 T. cocoa and 2 T oil) and put in a pot and melt with 1/2 c. margarine. Remove from heat and let cool a few minutes. Put in 2 eggs and 1 c. sugar with 2 T. rum. Mix. Now, add 1 c. flour, pinch salt. Spread into pie shell and drizzle with chocolate sauce and sprinkle with walnuts. Cook 350 x 25 minutes. You can serve this chilled or at room temperature or warm it before serving. It's very rich and dense and fantastic for picnics. It's my #2 pie. My #1 is Appalachian Butterscotch Meringue--sooooo naughty!

  10. Man Autumnforest I had just written a huge (very nice) comment to this and for only the second time ever blogger or something ate my comment up!!!!

    what i said in it boils down to thanks so much and i am saving this post to my faves for advice alone!!!

    I enjoyed all of the comments and agree with Julie Greekwitch -magikalseasons and others!!

    I have started a blog only a little over a week old that i havent said anything about to most people as it may crash and burn -and i wanted a minimum of 50 posts of my actual writing there before i said anything about it

    i hope to have on it eventually a fantasy genre series (no fixed ending) and a sci fi series (also no fixed ending) and at the same time one short story going all the time which many times i would imagine would be horror since i love the genre so much!!

    the series arent even started yet but i have 4 posts of the short story done and would appreciate yours and anyone elses comments about any of the things i am doing now or later there!!

    the blog is called "Beyond The Baryon Wall" and is on my bloglist-like i say only 4 posts of my writing there now and "idea" posts
    i know people are hugely busy right now with the time of year and all so i dont expect anyone who even wants to comment to be over there all the time-the short i am working on now isnt horror but will have a "Twilight Zonish" kind of ending

    thanks so much for this great article Autumnforest -i am saving it to favorites on puter and anyone who might want to go over there -dont worry about being as honest as you want -I KNOW my writing needs help -and i welcome anything as long as it is constructive and not destructive criticism

    thanks again for the fantastic advice in this post and hopefully blogger wont eat up this comment!!!
    and i hope you and your family and friends have a beautiful Thanksgiving!!
    ps there is one major project I am working on besides anything at "Baryon"-I am trying to eventually -hopefully use the blog to make my writing better
    and if when i have more done on it i would love it if i could email parts (or all of it depending on how large the email would be) and get your opinion!!

    i thinka advice from people who know how to write is priceless-and don't worry this wouldn't be til after the first of the year in all probability and of course i woulnt expect immediate response either way!!!

    all the best in the world to you my friend-thanks again for this great article!!!