Saturday, March 25, 2006


The Horror Of It All
Want to write horror? A lot of folks do. The mainstream publishing
industry may have momentarily turned its collective back on the
genre, but the small press scene is thriving, not to mention the
burgeoning number of horror ‘zines on the Net. Unfortunately, a great
many stories published in these markets are uninspired (to put it
kindly) and just plain bad (to put it honestly). Want your work to
stand out from the rest of the lycanthropic pack? Want to start
selling to larger and more prestigious markets? Want your horror
stories to be so good that people breathlessly race through your
prose, barely able to whisper an exhausted, "Goddamn, that was
something," when they’ve finished reading?
It ain’t easy. But I’ve got three tips to offer that will increase
your chances of joining the dark pantheon of horror writers who kick
major ass.
1. Beware of clichés.
Read widely, both inside and outside of the horror genre, so you can
recognize plots that have been done to (living) death. Then you’ll
know better than to write a story which ends, "And it was all a
dream" or "And then he realized as his lover sank her fangs into his
neck that she... was... a... VAMPIRE!"
When I was in my teens, I wrote a horror story with the embarrassing
title of "Scary Christmas." In it, a young punk torments and kills an
elderly man whose ghost comes seeking Yuletide revenge. At least I
had the good sense never to send this piece of crap out. Revenge
stories are one of the biggest clichés in horror fiction, and beside
that, there’s no tension in them. Readers know exactly how they’re
going to turn out every time.
Still, you can make clichés work for you. In my story, "Blackwater
Dreams," published in Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares 2, I tried
my hand at another ghostly revenge story. Only this time I took the
cliché and gave it a twist. The main character, a young boy who
blames himself for the drowning death of a friend, is visited in his
dreams by his friend’s ghost. He fears the spirit has come seeking
revenge, but the friend isn’t angry -- he’s lonely. At the end of the
story, my protagonist has to make a terrible choice: leave his friend
to his loneliness, or join him in his watery afterlife.
In my story "Alacrity’s Spectatorium," I twisted another cliché
around. I took the notion that vampires don’t cast reflections and
created a dark mirror which displays only the reflections of
vampires. What price would vampires pay for a glimpse of themselves
in such a unique mirror? More, what would such a glimpse mean to them?
Instead of ending with a cliché, why not begin with one? Start with
"It was all a dream" and build your story from there. Why not begin
with a man discovering his lover’s a vampire and see what happens
after that? Or flip the cliché around. What if a vampire discovered
his lover wasn’t another nosferatu but was instead (shudder) a human?
And try to avoid the most overworked plot in horror fiction, which
author Gary A. Braunbeck (Time Was, Things Left Behind) describes as
a story in which the main character exists only to get "slurped by
the glop." Stories in which characters are merely props to be eaten,
drained, eviscerated, sliced, diced and turned into julienne fries by
your monstrous "glop," whether it’s a vampire, werewolf or the
ubiquitous serial killer. These stories aren’t just boring; they’re
insulting to readers who deserve better.
Probably the best way to avoid clichés is to adhere to one of the
hoariest: write what you know. Draw on your own experience for your
story ideas, write about the things that excite and disturb you, the
people, places and events that form the unique fabric of your
existence, which make your life different than any other that’s ever
been lived before. If you do this, you can’t help but be original.
2. There’s a difference between disturbing readers and simply
grossing them out.
Too many beginners think that writing horror is all about detailed
descriptions of disembowelments and gushing bodily fluids. They
mistake the use of such elements for artistic audacity and
cutting-edge (pun intended) writing. The truth is, though, that such
writers are the literary equivalent of the kid who jams his finger up
his nose and pulls forth a big old nasty booger so he can wave it in
his friends’ faces.
Good horror -- like all fiction that truly matters -- is about
affecting readers emotionally. True, revulsion is an emotional
reaction, but it’s a simplistic one with a limited effect on readers.
They finish your story about a penis-munching condom, think, Man,
that’s sick, and immediately forget all about it. You’ve failed to
touch them save on the most shallow of levels.
I’m not saying you should avoid writing about the dark and
disturbing. That’s what horror’s all about, from the quiet subtlety
of a half-glimpsed shadow on an otherwise sunny day to the
in-your-face nastiness of blood dripping from the glinting metal of a
straight razor. But if you are, as Stephen King puts it, going to go
for the gross-out, it has to arise naturally from the story itself,
to be so integral to the tale you’re telling that it can’t be removed
without making the story suffer.
In Gary A. Braunbeck’s novella, "Some Touch of Pity" (also an
excellent example of a writer taking a cliché -- the werewolf story
-- and putting an original spin on it), there’s a flashback detailing
a character’s rape. Not just the physical aspect of it, but what the
character experiences emotionally as the rape occurs. The scene is
absolutely brutal, but it’s also completely necessary to the story.
If the scene were toned down, or worse, removed, the story would be
far less emotionally wrenching.
In my story, "Keeping It Together," forthcoming in the SFF-Net
anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire, I write about a gay man
living a heterosexual lifestyle in a home and with a family that he
has created from his own desperate desire to be what he perceives as
"normal." But it’s an illusion which can’t be sustained, and as the
story progresses, the house, his wife and young daughter all begin to
decay around him. In one scene he has sex with his wife out of a
sense of husbandly duty, and since she is well along in her
dissolution by this point, their lovemaking . . . damages her. I
created this scene not merely to make readers go "Ooooh, yuck!" but
to further dramatize the impact of such deep-seated denial on both my
main character and those around him.
Remember that extreme elements, like anything else in fiction, are
only tools to help you tell your stories in the best way you can. But
like any powerful tool, they should be used sparingly, cautiously and
always with good reason.
3. Give us characters we care about.
Let me say right up front that this bit of advice doesn’t mean that
we have to like your characters. It means your characters should be
so well developed and interesting that we want to read your story to
find out what happens to them. There are characters -- Ahab, Sherlock
Holmes, Hannibal Lector -- who aren’t always likable (and are
sometimes downright despicable) but who are so unique, so fully
realized, that they can’t fail to fascinate. Compelling characters is
what memorable fiction is all about, whether you’re writing for the
New Yorker or Cemetery Dance.
In my story, "Seeker," which appeared in the White Wolf anthology,
Dark Tyrants, I write about a disillusioned crusader who has lost his
faith in God and has gone searching for a nest of vampires in order
to prove to himself that there is some sort of spiritual aspect to
existence, even if that aspect is evil. The plot runs on two tracks.
First is a narrative of the crusader penetrating the forest where the
vampires live, being attacked by them, and finally dealing with their
leader (who I made not merely a vampire but one who has merged with
the Wood itself). The second track details, through various
flashbacks, the events that caused the crusader to lose his faith and
make him so desperate to find a sign -- any sign -- that there’s
Something More to life.
If I did my job right, readers will be interested not only in the
action in the story, but also in the crusader himself, so that when
the story reaches its climax and the character’s quest is fulfilled
in a way he -- and hopefully readers -- never imagined (no, he
doesn’t become a vampire himself; remember what I said earlier about
avoiding clichés? I try to practice what I preach), there’s not only
an emotional pay-off, but hopefully readers will leave the story
thinking a little bit about their own spirituality.
There’s a lot more to writing good horror, but if you take the three
morsels of advice I’ve given you to heart, you’ll create stories
which will not only rise above the generic tales of flesh-munching
zombies and blood-lusting serial killers that are out there, you’ll
create fiction worth reading -- and worth remembering.

Tim Waggoner wrote his first story at the age of five, when he
created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a
stenographer’s pad. It took him a few more years until he began
selling professionally, however. Overall, he’s published over fifty
stories of fantasy and horror, as well as hundreds of nonfiction
articles. In addition to writing fiction, Tim’s worked as an editor
and newspaper reporter. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair
Community College in Dayton, Ohio. His wonderful wife Cindy is a
psychologist (a useful profession for the spouse of a writer). They
have two bright and beautiful daughters, Devon and Leigh. Tim hopes
to continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after
which he wants to be stuffed and mounted in front of his computer
Visit Tim's website for even more tips on writing at

Copyright © 2000 by Tim Waggoner. This article may not be reproduced
in part or in whole, with the exception of a hyperlink to this page,
without the express permission of the author.


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