In horror, mood and atmosphere are more important than the characters you place in them or the actions they take within.
Anyone is more interesting in a setting of intrigue and mystery. Anything they do is motivated by that location and its mood.
A well-written horror story has a setting and a sensory feel that evokes fear, anticipation, concern, and terror. Here are some of the things to consider when building this ambiance:
Setting: You lock a mechanic inside of a gas station garage for the night and he’ll be right at home. You put a trophy wife from the other side of town in that same garage for the night and you have chaos. My general rule of thumb is either I take a setting that looks innocent and create something dark about it—you take the reader from feeling safe to being unsettled by the incongruity. Or, I take a setting that is classically scary like a cemetery, and put a false sense of security by having the main character’s time there seem peaceful and quiet.
Look for the mystery in whatever setting you choose and bring it alive with the next tip:
Senses: Whenever possible, make us smell, taste, feel, hear, and see things the characters are experiencing. How someone interprets their sojourn into the woods can tell you how they feel about their setting. “The fragrance hit her first, a heavy scent of crushed pine oils mixed with rotting sweet-scented leaves and earthy mushrooms. The familiar perfume comforted her nerves and Marcia took in a deep sighing breath of relief.” Don’t forget temperatures, sounds, cavernous locations, dark creeping shadows, a heart galloping, a stomach grumbling, hair standing on end… Put the reader in the body of the hero/heroine and allow them to live it. How you describe the senses can reflect on the character, as well. If she loves sunlight and warmth, her despair in a cool damp dark place should be apparent. Remember, a southern woman might consider floral to be magnolia, a northerner might think roses. Subtle differences, but keep them appropriate to the character’s point of reference, education level, and personal explanatory style. A backwoods boy with not a lot of education isn’t going to compare the fragrance of an opening flower to a fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Really become that character with his prejudices, influences, likes, dislikes, and vocabulary. The reason each human being is unique is purely his internal self-explanatory style—how he explains to himself what he encounters day to day.
Weather: This can be a cheap atmospheric point that manipulates readers and they see right through. Use it in a nonclassic way. Doesn’t it always storm during a climax? What if it’s hot sticky humid with hazy sunlight? How about if the rain slants against the windowpanes, streaking down the glass in rivulets of icy glaze? Sure, thunder booms, but can it shake the walls of the house and slap the rooftop? Sometimes the weather is nothing more than a texture to the setting and not so much a necessary plot device.
Lighting: A lack of light obviously creates fear, but what if you had only the blue light of a nearly full moon casting everything into a lifeless sterile glow? What if the lighter in your shaking hand danced every time you breathed upon it with your shallow breath? You have a candle, but what if all that did was cast strange shadows on the wall that made your fears increase?
The Unknown: This can include nooks and crannies, locked doors, unexplored caverns, mysterious stalkers, shadows cast on a bedroom wall, strange sounds coming from an unidentifiable source. Leave people, creatures, ghosts, monsters, stalkers hanging around the periphery, hinting at them occasionally, but leaving the main character to wander Who? What? Where? When? and Why?
Use your life experience: Ultimately, when I go to write a story, I take myself to a place I’ve been in my life. That’s why I recommend you really soak in a place when you visit it. Don’t just go to the landmarks and stay so busy you don’t stop and realize the sounds, feels, and atmosphere around you. My short story “Cave Dwellers” that I wrote for October and is going to be published was based on a wet cave I found in Hawaii that bothered me. When I was inside of it, I thought I heard something little scamper and the light coming into the cave cast its little shadow. Years later, I saw TV specials about the little supposed alien creatures in caves in Chile and Mexico and that got me thinking of the cave I’d been in that bothered me. Suddenly, I knew what it was like to have a feasible creature in a place imprinted in my mind. And remember your character! You might have been on a tour of a dusty old Civil War Museum, but what if your character (who is not like you) were to be there? People ask me often times how I can write horror when I'm not a person who gets spooked. I understand the thinking processes that make people ignite and feed fear into a state of panic, so I know how my characters might react to scary events, what they might tell themselves about what happened, and how that might feed their terror. If actors can play angry nasty characters when they're naturally quiet and sweet and reserved; writers can do the same.
There are no coincidences.
Everything that got you to this point gave you a huge wealth of reference for writing, whether it was the colorful characters you’ve been surrounded by, your personal struggles through issues, heartbreak, loss, joy, and triumph. Everything you’re writing about on your blogs is serendipitous knowledge that can forward your writing. My theories on rock being associated with hauntings is being utilized in my story “The Thicket” where the rock on the mountain enhances and amplifies paranormal events and pagan magic. Every person I encounter has a look, dialect, speech pattern, mannerisms, motivations, and more for lots of robust characters.
Exercise: Try some time to sit in a room or outside with a notebook or laptop and describe your setting and how it makes you (the character) feel. Now, bring to mind a character from a movie or TV show you've seen and how she would describe the setting. What would she appreciate about it? What would she focus on? What would she like or dislike about it? Now, read your two descriptions and see that the world is not absolute--it's purely how we each see it.
I’ll be continuing my writer’s workshop series. These guidelines I’m putting together in these posts are working my own skills right now as I’m writing and editing my novels and short stories. I hope you find something in here you haven’t considered before.