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How to Write Today's Horror, Part III: What Today's Readers Don't Want
by David Taylor

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

An important part of writing successfully in any genre is learning what not to do. Unfortunately, the path to publication is not straight and narrow, nor without blind alleys and sloughs of despair. To avoid the pitfalls one must discover not only what a good horror story is, but also what one isn't.

Just as these students were unanimous in what they wanted most from a horror story (fast-paced suspense), they were equally adamant about what ruins their fun: anything that smacks of a "literary" treatment and slows down the pace. Eighty-one percent made comments like:

  • "Can't stand long, drawn-out stories which overkill with background and details about characters and about life -- makes for tiresome reading."

  • "I don't like stories that go into so much detail about everything that I lose the plot and my head spins by the time I'm through reading."

  • "Detail upon detail, description upon description, bore upon bore!"

One student opined simply: "Literary horror -- yuck!"

On the surface, such comments seem to contradict the need for finely-drawn characters and setting. But these students are actually displaying a solid understanding of this genre and its uniqueness:

As readers of horror, they expect to be entertained by a suspenseful tale of dark fantasy. Their comments imply that while theme, realistic characters and settings are important props in the entertainment, those elements must be kept secondary.

Too much of a good thing blurs the boundary between the horror story (a literature of fear and the fantastic) and the mainstream literary story (a literature of character and theme) which they've come to associate with school. As one student begged when we were about to discuss Stephen King for the first time, "Please don't tell me he's good literature; I like him too much."

Sadly, "lit-ra-ture" for many young readers has become associated solely with the stories of mainstream realism chosen by authority figures for textbooks. For years, students have had to analyze, take tests on and regurgitate teachers' interpretations of these stories -- a useless and demeaning experience at best. For these students, horror -- with its emphasis on plot, suspense and extremes -- gives back to literature what schools have managed to strip away: its pleasure, entertainment, fun.

The Guessing Game

A lot of the fun in this genre comes from the important game that goes on between writer and reader, wherein the writer tries to stay always one step ahead, doling out just enough information to keep the story intriguing and coherent yet the reader still guessing and in suspense. The horror writer must walk a tightrope, balancing between predictability and obscurity, telling neither too much nor too little.

Failure to avoid those extremes was the pitfall most frequently cited by these students. Eighty-eight percent complained about predictability, saying again and again: "I don't like authors who give away too much too soon."

Their comments here also reaffirm the importance of the ending in this genre. Several students wrote:

  • "An obvious ending ruins the whole story."

  • One student made an impassioned plea to writers: "To all horror authors: please don't give away the ending before I get there. It makes me want my money back!"

These students also grew impatient with authors who withheld too much information and left readers baffled about what really happened. Sixty-nine percent objected to "stories where everything is a confused jumble of events." Their typical reaction was not one that bodes well for repeat sales: "Too much confusion in a story and I just give up."

Some of these comments arose from our reading of several experimental stories in which authors challenged the reader by violating one or more traditional rules of narrative and attempting to let the form of the story mirror a character's confused mental state or be a comment on the illusory nature of reality.

The fact that only the English majors in the class enjoyed those stories further underscores the expectations of the majority: A story that is entertaining does not make unusual, "literary" demands on its readers. Experimentation may be important for an artist's and a genre's growth, but it won't necessarily do well in the bookstore. The student who wrote, "A horror story that loses me is boring. If I can't understand it, I can't very well enjoy it," was also serving notice about his tolerance for literary innovation.

One Man's Meat

These students were traditional in another way. A majority flatly rejected gratuitous acts of sex and violence. They would agree with Ramsey Campbell, author of The Influence, who once said: "In the worst horror fiction, violence is a substitute for imagination and just about everything else one might look for in fiction." Campbell was drawing the same distinction between sensationalism and the legitimate use of violence as my students did:

  • "Stories that have no justification for their violence bore me."

  • "Blood and guts shouldn't be used unnecessarily, some writers don't understand this."

  • "What ruins a story for me? Too much purposeless blood and gore."

I should add that Moravian College is church-afffliated in name only; these are typical students from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. Their reaction is a typical one, and it helps answer a question posed by many social critics and parents about how far explicitness can go in the media: Where will it end? What's the stopping point? These eighteen- to twenty-year-olds, products of the sexual revolution, suggest that explicitness contains its own antidote: boredom.

Be a Believer

These readers also strongly objected to what they called "unbelievable" writing: setting, characters, style, or story logic that failed to keep them immersed in the tale, their skepticism on hold. They wrote:

  • "The horror has to be made believable. If not, then the story has nothing for me."

  • "I have to be able to believe in the setting, characters and esp. the monsters etc."

Their comments touch on one of the paradoxes and challenges of dark fantasy: An author must write so convincingly, so realistically that the reader achieves a "willing suspension of disbelief" in the face of the patently unreal. Most English professors, whose primary focus is the "slice of life" moralistic tale, would have a difficult time understanding the pitfall that these students are pointing out.

Horror fans know that, in this genre, writing believably means more than just capturing everyday reality. It means using the same qualities of prose found in the best mainstream writing to set up a quotidian reality, and then to move the reader beyond it into the realm of the fantastic -- while maintaining his belief in something that just isn't so. To quote another grand pere of the modern horror story:

"Pound for pound, fantasy makes a tougher opponent for the creative person."
-- Richard Matheson

Horror fans know that, even if their teachers don't.

Getting Fresh

Robert Bloch, whose Psycho staked out fresh territory for the psychological horror story, remarked in his introduction to How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction that:

" . . . in order for a writer to do his or her best, he must incorporate originality, a prime ingredient for success. If the theme is old, the twist or payoff must be new."

My students couldn't agree more. They derided "stories that seem to be carbon copies of others." These readers demanded that "a plot should not seem even remotely familiar," and that "if the supernatural is used, it must have a new twist."

Like Bloch, the students seemed to recognize that each genre places a premium on different writing talents: the extrapolative powers of the SF author, the observational skills of the mainstream realist, the plotting finesse of the mystery writer.

The students were laying down an important caveat for aspiring horror writers: In a genre which attempts to entertain with suspense and dark fantasy, there is a keen demand for raw imaginative power and an unorthodox daring-do of mind that can take writer and reader where others fear to tread.

It's the End

Young readers have a genuine enthusiasm for this literature. Contemporary horror fiction taps an excitement for reading in them that is almost always absent from a classroom dominated by the classics and the modern darlings of English Departments. Anne Tyler, Saul Bellow, and John Fowles are fine writers, but what truly excites these students' lust for story is horror. It speaks to them in a way that Silas Marner does not. Their response to horror fiction reaffirms the force that literature can have in young lives when teachers allow it.

These readers have also a clear set of their own standards. While they can appreciate the graphic detail and daring assaults of extreme horror, they still insist certain boundaries be observed. They demand quality writing, especially in characterization. One of the more hotly contested questions among critics -- whether horror should be psychologically or supernaturally based -- doesn't seem important to them. An equal number of students wrote "A good horror story blends reality, fantasy, and the supernatural" as did those who said, "I like stories that can really happen because they scare me the most."

In the end, although the surface features of the horror tale have changed to reflect the times, today's readers still want genuine characters inside a vividly written story based on a fresh and frightening premise, pulled together by a suspenseful plot that keeps them turning the pages -- rapidly. Although no formula can guarantee writing success, that one is a good place to start.

Horror Novel Checklist

Like any literary form, the horror novel has its conventions -- ones which the apprentice learns, the professional masters and the greats soar beyond as they shatter the boundaries of genre, whether it be Elizabethan revenge tragedy (Hamlet), pact-with-the devil tales (Faust), or the end-of-days novel (The Stand).

At Moravian College, as part of a workshop in writing the horror novel, we analyzed 30 mass market paperbacks from among the latest releases. Not surprisingly, we found that the basic elements of fiction -- an opening that hooks readers, exposition of characters and their situation, complications, climax and resolution -- still provided the underlying structure of horror novels, but these elements had been altered to fit the special conventions of a literature of fear and the bizarre. Here's the checklist we devised for writing our horror novels:

  • The Grabber. Have you opened with a prologue or short chapter which provides a brief but tantalizing (and usually violent) glimpse of the secret horror which will propel the story forward?

  • Backfill. Within chapters 1-5, have you introduced the main characters and their problems, then isolated them in one locale (a town, resort, swamp, etc.) along with the horror?

  • Turn Up the Heat. Do your middle chapters show increasingly weird/violent events which threaten the protagonists and force them to investigate and eventually confront the horror (usually ancient or occult) that has been triggered?

  • Flash Slash. If the pace slows, have you flashed to a violent scene to show the horror at its gruesome work?

  • Final Jeopardy. Does your final climax scene contain sufficient pay-off for the reader? When things have gotten as bad as they can get for the protags, with seemingly no way out, just as they are about to be overpowered by the superior horrific force, something enables them to triumph -- courage, ingenuity, imagination, a tool or piece of information previously planted.

  • It Lives! A short final chapter or epilogue shows the main characters at peace, resuming their normal lives but changed forever by their encounter with evil. But have you also hinted that the victory is a temporary one, and that the horror has merely gone back into hiding and could rise again someday -- possibly in a sequel?

Other conventions to keep in mind:

  • Cupid Strikes refers to the romantic subplot in horror novels wherein the hero and heroine meet and join together (spiritually and physically) to fight the evil besetting them.

  • Bang for the Buck means that readers expect the horror novelist to offer well-researched information on a legend or myth, occult or psychic fore, exotic geographical location, sport, profession, etc.

  • Body Count and overall levels of violence vary greatly from publisher to publisher; be sure to analyze a particular house's recent releases before submitting. Doing so could save a great deal of postage, waiting and grief. More importantly, such study and preparation is the real "secret" to writing a horror novel.

Find Out More...

How to Write Today's Horror, Part I: The Seeds of Horror - David Taylor

How to Write Today's Horror, Part II: What Today's Readers Want - David Taylor

Do Werewolves Wear Shoes? Building Successful Horror Characters - Shaunna Privratsky

What Makes a Horror Writer? - Elizabeth Peake

Copyright © 2003 David Taylor
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

David Taylor's horror and dark suspense fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Masques, Pulphouse and Scare Care; and in magazines like Cemetery Dance, Sci-Fi Channel Magazine and Gorezone. His 1990 short story "Lessons in Wildlife" earned an honorable mention in that year's "Best Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy" awards. Author and coauthor of five horror novels, David's latest works are a collection of short stories, Hell is for Children, and a guide to nonfiction writing, The Freelance Success Book.


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