Here’s another of the workshops I taught in Utah last year. It’s a little random and piecemeal in parts, but I hope it comes in useful for any YA horror writers out there!
‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’ Lovecraft
Scaring your readers is hard. Kids these days have seen everything before – if they haven’t read about it then they’ve sure seen it in a film or in a video game. Concepts and imagery that once upon a time would have been terrifying have become familiar, and familiarity makes them stale. Kids know these tropes and clichés, and to know something is to take away the inherent horror of it.
Horror isn’t about trying to shock your readers, it is about more lasting emotions – it digs beneath the skin, stays with us.
Tip: When you read a passage that scares you, don’t just read it, write it out. Reading and writing are like a country path, but reading is flying over it in a plane and writing is like walking down it. If you copy out a passage you’ll get a much better sense of how it is constructed, and why it is so scary.
The most important rule to making your work scary is to have believable, likeable protagonists. Readers have to be able to put themselves in the character’s shoes, they have to be able to project onto them, empathise with them. If readers don’t like your characters, then no matter how terrifying the plot they won’t get scared because they haven’t invested anything in the protagonist.
1. Suspense: Let Your Readers Do the Work
Horror isn’t a genre, it is an emotion. And it isn’t simply fear or disgust. You can’t show an exploding head or a disfigured monster stepping out of the wardrobe and call it horror. Those things might give the reader a fright, yes, or make them throw up their dinner. But they don’t necessarily make for a good horror book.
“There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…” Hitchcock
“I’m not sure I can explain exactly how it works. It has to do with creating believable people for whom the reader can feel affection, then putting them in danger of the unnameable and unseen. And it has to be suspended. You can’t just pull a gun out and have them get shot. You have to allow the sense of underlying unease to intensify over time. As crucial as fear is dread. Dread is essential.” Peter Straub
In fact, the only person genuinely capable of inducing a feeling of pure horror is the reader. You have to make them do the hard work, and the best way to do that is by using mystery. Plant a seed of horror in their mind, a promise that something bad is coming, and then build the suspense by holding back that event, by using red herrings. With every word they will be waiting for something to happen, imagining it, fearing it. They will be creating their own sense of horror and anticipation. The end result will hopefully live up to their expectations, but even if it doesn’t they will be left with that sense of having gone through something terrifying – and of course you’ll be doing the same thing again later in the story. You’re giving readers the tools to create their own horror.
The same applies with villains – if you show them too early, you show their limitations. Build up the mythology of a villain or a monster, make the reader imagine how terrible this thing could be, and they will do your job for you in terms of scaring themselves. I did this with Alfred Furnace.
Showing the horror makes it known, and our greatest fear is of the unknown.
2. Use Your Fears
But imaginatively. Pick something that you are afraid of – it can be anything, from cockroaches or spiders to fear of the dark or of small places. It could even be clowns! Say you are afraid of cockroaches, that in itself isn’t really going to be enough fear fodder for a whole novel (but maybe a short story). However, ask yourself why you are afraid of cockroaches. Is it a fear of things that scuttle under the furniture? In that case, could it really be a fear of hidden things – a world that exists just beneath the skin of your own life, writhing and chittering and ready to burst free at any time. Or maybe it’s a fear of things getting out of control, dirt and infestations. Look at the root of a fear, try to understand the mechanics of the terror it inspires, it will lead to some interesting and terrifying writing. Most fears and phobias tie into a deeper horror – we externalise our fears onto other things.
This is a great way of creating realistic characters and scary prose – use these fears in a subplot to get to the root of your character’s psyche.
Stephen King’s The Shining is a great example of this technique in action. The main plot of the story is Jack Torrence battling the ghosts at the Overlook Hotel, which is isolated in the wintry mountains of Colorado. In the subplot, our hero battles with a troubled past of alcoholism and guilt over hurting his son. He also struggles with a short temper.
The Overlook Hotel’s unsavory history and the ghosts that haunt its corridors are metaphors for Torrence’s life – how his troubled past haunts his present. There is also a boiler in the Hotel’s basement that he has to release pressure from each day. That’s a metaphor for his short temper that he’s always trying to keep in check.
Activity: Pick one of your most potent fears – it can be anything – and create a character with the same phobia. Now think of some reasons why a character might have these fears, and what they might represent in terms of deeper, subconscious terrors and real-life struggles. Then think of a monster, or a horror, that represents these real-life fears.
Use Your Fears in your Language
Your fears don’t have to be literal inside your story, they can exist as fleeting references, subtle shades that induce a creeping terror in your readers. If you are scared of cockroaches, use insect-like description: ‘Fear scuttled up her spine’, ‘he stared at her with black, emotionless eyes, a spider’s eyes’, ‘her thoughts escaped like cockroaches, vanishing into the shadows’, ‘the cluster of boils had grown, stuck to the skin of her armpit like insect eggs’, etc. If you are afraid of drowning, then use this terror carefully in your description: ‘He couldn’t seem to remember how to draw a breath, like he was submerged in dark water’, ‘she fought against the current of her thoughts’, etc. You’re not using your fears literally, but they are still there in your writing, and the reader picks up on them. They are arguably more effective this way, because a reader will grow uneasy, sensing horror there even though nothing horrific might actually be happening.
And make up your own verbs if you like! ‘Her face was carapaced black, hard and chitinous’, or ‘insect legs needled up her spine’, etc.
Even without using your worst fear you can use language to establish a mood of horror. Look at the second paragraph of The Exorcist, specifically at the words used to evoke discomfort and fear:
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight. A brick colonial ripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Across the street was a fringe of campus belonging to Georgetown university; to the rear a sheer embankment plummeting steep to busy M street and, beyond, the muddy Potomac. Early on the morning of 1st April, the house was quiet… At approximately 12:25 AM, Chris glanced from her script with a frown of puzzlement. She heard rapping sounds. They were odd. Muffled. Profound. Rhythmically clustered. Alien code tapped out by a dead man.
Activity: Take your fear and use it metaphorically and linguistically – or just write a paragraph using verbs that unsettle and disturb. Create a mood of horror before the horror even begins.
Writing like this helps avoid clichés – chills up the spine, inky darkness, etc – which have the opposite effect of scaring your readers!
3. To Gore or Not to Gore…
Horror is often synonymous with gore and violence, but how much can you really get away with in a YA book? My philosophy is to push the boat out as far as I can and let an editor rein it in if necessary, but there are some things you just shouldn’t show!
Furnace is a violent book, but much of the horror is implied rather than explicit. There are ways of ‘showing’ things without really showing them, and these are often far more terrifying because it leaves the truth of it to the reader’s imagination. Use all of your senses. If something horrible is about to happen, have your character look away and just hear it, the snapping bones and dripping blood, or feel the spray of blood, or smell the ruptured organs (ew!). By not showing it explicitly you are almost making it worse. Likewise show something after the deed – the mess it makes, the stitches, etc. In Furnace Alex sees the end results of the warden’s surgery long before he sees it in progress, and it is much scarier when he doesn’t know what is happening because it leaves it to the reader’s own imagination. Dreams and stories within the book can work the same way, creating tension. Again, with a ghost story, it is far scarier seeing the evidence a ghost has left behind that finally seeing the ghost itself.
Using senses other than sight increases the mystery because we don’t know exactly what is happening, it makes things scarier. The less we see, the more we have to imagine, and the more we have to fear…
Put Yourself in the Villain’s Shoes
Write from the perspective of the demon, the monster, the serial killer, the ghost. Delve into the darkest part of your own mind – it’s a good way to scare yourself.
Pick a horror element and take it to the extreme – break the rules of what’s real, break the tropes. Instead of a vampire drinking blood, have it peel off the skin and wear it, taking on your personality, stealing your identity. Or introduce a vampire, then have it terrified of an evil greater threat, something new and vastly more evil. Instead of a zombie eating you, have them feed themselves to you, to try and live on inside your body. Taking things in a completely new, insane direction can sometimes spark off brand new, horrific ideas.
Setting plays an important part in making horror stories scary. Not just haunted corridors filled with cobwebs, or cemeteries in the dead of night. Anywhere can be scary, and the scariest places of all can be the familiar ones, but where unfamiliar things are happening. One of the best ways to unsettle a reader is to make your protagonist (and therefore the reader) feel isolated, cut off from other people and therefore by herself. You can do this in conventional ways, by removing a cell phone signal, perhaps, or sinking the ferry to the mainland, etc. Having a character alone in a big house at night, or trapped in a location like a school or a library. Or maybe inside a crippled space ship (like in Alien), and, of course, inside a prison cut off from the real world.
But there are other ways of creating that terrifying sense of isolation. Maybe the character’s parents / friends don’t believe her stories of the paranormal – this isolates the character and forces her to act by herself. In The Fury the protagonists are cut off from help because anyone they go near turns psychotically feral and tries to kill them – they can have no contact with any potential saviours. Or you can kill off friends and loved ones, removing a character’s security piece by piece. You leave the character trapped and powerless, increasing the tension, but you also force them to use their own resources and strengths, which is vital for YA horror.
More ways include turning the protagonist’s world upside down – making her world unfamiliar by people doing strange things, behaving oddly, events that push the character away from her comfortable world, making her an outsider, trapping her outside the familiar. Make the familiar unfamiliar.
Have fun with your scary stories!