Equipping Writers for Success
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by Shaunna Privratsky
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The horror genre is often described as gory, bloody and violent, usually with a disparaging shake of the head. Indeed, some writers use meaningless violence or bloodshed as shock value. This approach is horrifying, but not in the way the author intended.
True horror writing is more about atmosphere and emotion. Just like any other genre, horror authors must develop characters, plot twists and dialogue for a successful story. Yet he or she must go a step further, into the murky areas of the unknown.
Fans of the horror story read for thrills and chills, but they want a good story, too. Remember that readers are willing to suspend their belief and knowledge of the "real" world, but you must give them a reason to read. Start with a killer hook. And no, I don't mean that literally, although it could make a spine-tingling story...
A spooky tale is dependent upon a hook intriguing enough to draw the reader into your world, whether it is filled with ghosts, goblins or things that slither and scream in the night. You might begin with a weird occurrence, or start out "normally" and introduce the horror elements insidiously, like a wisp of warning smoke that builds to a blaze.
Setting can add tremendously to the horror story in the hands of a skilled scribe. A few lines of well-placed description should send shivers up the spines of your readers. Remember not to overdo it, though. Anything that stops the flow of the story loses points with editors and more importantly, your readers. No matter how entertaining, a story can't thrive on description and setting alone. Pick vivid details by using all of the senses and choosing the most pertinent.
Your characters might be ghosts, witches, werewolves or vampires. Despite your character's otherworldly attributes or powers, you must still make the reader identify with the players in your story. Give them human emotions or characteristics. They don't have to be likable to be popular, however. Anne Rice's ever-successful hero, the Vampire Lestat, seems to be an egotistical jerk, yet I still buy all of Anne's books and read them voraciously.
There are plenty of ways to instill charisma into your subject. Give them names, appearances, mannerisms, vocabulary, emotions and actions that make them distinctive to the reader. The choice of names can send an unconscious message or meaning. "Bambi" brings to mind an expendable victim; while "Barbara" gives the impression that this girl might be smart enough to survive. You probably wouldn't choose "Agatha Krunk" as the name of your lovely young heroine. Yet it would make the perfect handle for your vicious villainess.
Try not to assign similar sounding names to characters. For example "Edward" and "Eddie" may be confused or "Marie" and "Mary", especially if they are similar in appearance. Anything that puzzles the reader or makes an editor scratch her head detracts from your story.
Your character's description is as important as their name. Never go overboard; less is more, as the saying goes. Give telling details but don't dwell on them overlong. Use description to evoke a sense of the broader culture or background. Avoid the use of mirrors as if you were a revenant fearful of being trapped in its depths.
If you want your characters to "breathe", give them real emotions, even if they're not exactly acceptable. Let them screw up or think an unkind thought about how fat Uncle Randolph is getting since he retired. The reader needs to empathize with the subjects.
Believe it or not, your main character should have the least description. Why? Because you want the reader to imagine themselves in the same situation, even if they are a different nationality, have different hair or eye colors, or even if they are the opposite sex. Constantly stressing the hero's blue eyes, blonde hair and bulging muscles reminds a raven-haired female that she doesn't fit into the story.
The best characters are those that linger in our memories like old friends long after we've turned the last page. By using some or all of these techniques, you can create a charming cast of characters with charisma, no matter if they are ghosts, vampires or shape shifters.
Speaking of unearthly characters, do werewolves wear shoes? Only you can decide as you craft a horror tale in your world and with your rules. Yet you must make it believable. You don't want to travel so far outside the range of human experience that your audience stops reading in disbelief. On the other hand, you must stretch the mundane and add a fantastical twist to your horror tale.
Just because your story deals with the paranormal, don't skimp on the details. A publishable horror tale has all the elements of exemplary fiction. In addition to setting, description and characters, you need a situation or plot as well as conflict and resolution. Stringing together a few spooky scenes or an axe murder or two does not constitute a publishable tale.
To be successful in the horror genre, you have to read in that genre. Otherwise you won't know what's already been done to death and your submissions will get rejected. Don't write in an unfamiliar genre just to get an "easy sale."
You have to enjoy immersing yourself in dream worlds and let yourself believe, if only for a little while, in witches, trolls, ghoulies and that nameless, dreaded thing that appears over and over in half-forgotten nightmares. Once you discover the underlying structure of well-crafted horror writing, you will be able to write stories guaranteed to scare the socks off the next editor who reads it.
So, do werewolves wear shoes? Of course! When they are in human form, werewolves look just like you or me. Well, perhaps a bit hairier, especially as the moon nears its fullest phase.
The next time you have a vivid nightmare or become inspired by something that
only comes out at night, write it down and you'll be well on your way to scaring
up a sale. Happy haunting!
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Shaunna Privratsky is a fulltime author who juggles her time between writing, reading, caring for her family, and shoveling snow. Please visit The Writer Within at http://shaunna67.tripod.com and sign up for the free newsletters.