Writing a horror story by Keith Whelan

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This was presented at Horror at the Metcalfe 12 March 2014, co-organised by the NSW Readers Advisory Working Group

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Writing a horror story by Keith Whelan

  1. 1. We are all afraid of the Dark! - Writing a Horror Story By Keith Whelan Ways & Means Learning
  2. 2. Writing a Horror Story Every story is, in its tiny way, a horror story. Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things. It’s not all about severed heads or blood-glutton vampires. It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats.
  3. 3. Writing a Horror Story Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its truest and most theatrical form: tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps. When the girl in the horror movie goes to investigate the creepy noise rather than turn and flee, that’s a micro-moment of tragedy.
  4. 4. Writing a Horror Story We know that’s a bad goddamn decision and yet she does it. It is her downfall — possibly literally, as the slasher tosses her down an elevator shaft where she’s then impaled on a bunch of fixed spear-points or something.
  5. 5. Writing a Horror Story From Beowulf to Nathaniel Hawthorne, from Greek myth to Horace Walpole, horror’s been around for a long, long time. Everything’s all crushed bodies and extracted tongues and doom and devils and demi-gods. This is our literary legacy: the flower-bed of our fiction is seeded with these kernels of horror and watered with gallons of blood and a sprinkling of tears. Horror is part of our narrative make-up.
  6. 6. Writing a Horror Story You want to see the simplest heart of horror, you could do worse than by dissecting ghost stories and urban legends: two types of tale we tell even as young deviants and miscreants. They contain many of the elements that make horror what it is: subversion and fear of the unknown.
  7. 7. Writing a Horror Story We fear the unknown because we fear the dark. We fear the dark because we’re biologically programmed to do so: at some point we gain the awareness that outside the light of our fire lurks.... Horror often operates best when it plays off this core notion that the unknown is a far freakier quantity than the known. The more we know the less frightening it becomes.
  8. 8. Writing a Horror Story On the other hand, creating horror is easier and more effective when the stakes are so plain they’re on the table for all to see. We must know what can be gained — and, more importantly, what can be lost — for horror to work. Fear is built off of understanding consequences. We can be afraid of the unknown of the dark, but horror works best when we know that the dark is worth fearing.
  9. 9. Writing a Horror Story Beneath plot and beneath story is a greasy, grimy sub-textual layer of pacing — the tension and recoil of dread and revulsion. Dread is a kind of septic fear, a grim certainty that bad things are coming. Revulsion occurs when we see how these bad things unfold. We know that the monster is coming, and at some point we must see the wretchedness of the beast laid bare. Dread, revulsion, dread, revulsion.
  10. 10. Writing a Horror Story Suspense and tension are key components to the horror-making process. The best way to create these things is to have characters you love making choices you hate. When you see a beloved character about to step toward the closet where the unseen serial killer is hiding, your sphincter tightens so hard it could break someone’s finger. We recoil at mistakes made by loved ones, and this is doubly true when these mistakes put their lives, souls and sanities in danger.
  11. 11. Writing a Horror Story Horror and humour, hanging out at the gym, snapping each other’s asses with wet towels. Horror and humour both work to stimulate that same place in our gutty-works, a place that defies explanation. Sometimes you don’t know why you think this thing is funny or that thing is scary. They just are. It’s why it’s hard to explain a horror story or a joke: you can’t explain it, you can only tell it. And both are told similarly: both have a set up, ask a question, and respond with a punch line or a twist. It’s just, they go in separate directions — one aims for amusement, the other for anxiety.
  12. 12. Writing a Horror Story Horror’s once again a difficult genre. It had a heyday in the 80s and 90s, evidenced by the fact it had its very own shelf at most bookstores. That’s no longer the case at book stores. Some self-published authors have pulled away from marketing their books as horror because they sell better when labelled as other genres.
  13. 13. Writing a Horror Story Horror needs to work on you, the author. You need to be troubled, a little unsettled, by your own material. Write about what scares you. Doesn’t matter what it is or how absurd — hell, some people think that being terrified of clowns is ridiculous!
  14. 14. Writing a Horror Story Dig deep into your own dark places. Tear off the manhole cover and stare down into the unanswered abyss. Speak to your own experiences, your own fears and frights. Shake up your anxieties and let them tumble onto the page. Because horror works best when horror is honest. The audience will feel that. The truth you bring to the genre will resonate, an eerie and unsettling echo that turns the mind upon itself.
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