These are the notes I used for a workshop back in 2013, so they may be all over the place!
Horror isn’t just recommended for teenagers, it should be essential reading! Part of the reason teenagers love horror so much is that it shows them they can face up to any challenge, any threat, and come away victorious – which is so important during a time when you struggle for authority and control. Teenagers face the unknown every day, and are often powerless against it. It is a time of angst, fear, the unknown, powerlessness – the key features of horror.
I wanted to start this workshop by looking at ideas. The beauty of writing horror for a YA audience is that, unlike adult horror, there is plenty that hasn’t been done! You can take your inspiration from adult horror and reimagine it for a younger audience.
Your Own Life
Both Furnace and Fury came from my own life, thematically. Furnace came from me going through a ‘criminal’ phase when I was a teenager, while I guess ‘Fury’ came from me not being very popular! Look at incidents in your own life, themes that relate to you – love, loss, illness, social standing, tragedy etc. Ideas can grow from your own experience, and they are usually great ideas because they are so personal. (Or use themes that are important to you – politics, religion etc – but don’t get up on your soapbox!)
Activity:Think of something that has happened to you, and expand it into a story idea.
There are an infinite number of myths, legends, fairy tales and other stories out there, some thousands of years old. There are the big ones: vampires, werewolves, ghosts and demons, but there are countless others that might provide the spark of inspiration.
Activity:Open the book of myths on a random page and pick a random entry, then think of a way to turn this into a YA horror book.
Use Your Fears
This is one of the best ways to come up with an idea, and it’s how I thought of Furnace. Think about your own fears, things that terrify you, or just creep you out. These can be anything from a fear of flying or getting sick or losing a loved one, to fears of the dark, of being buried alive, or being bullied, or even fears of ghosts and demons and other supernatural things. Turn those fears into story ideas by asking a ‘what if’.
Activity:Make a list of some of the things that scare you, then turn those fears into story ideas.
Start with a Character
Sometimes the best way to begin a story is to start with a character. If you have a character you want to use, but aren’t sure what her story is, then take the time to get to know her. Learn everything there is to know about her, what her greatest fears are, what her history is like, how she views herself, what her relationship with her parents is like. The more you learn, the more you have to work with – sooner or later a story idea will emerge from this character.
Activity:Take a character, think about her history, her life, and try and pull a story idea from it.
Give Dracula a New Cape
There’s nothing to stop you using an idea that’s been done before, but give it a twist. Whether you love or hate Twilight, Stephanie Meyer reinvented vampires for a teenage audience. We hadn’t seen vampires like that before, and they proved to be a hit. Horror has a vast heritage of ideas, take one and turn it around and see what happens. Using new science to explain old monsters can be fun.
Activity:Think of a common horror trope – zombies, vampires etc – and give it a unique twist.
Use the News
The news is a great place to look for that spark of inspiration. What if soldiers in Afghanistan uncovered something evil? What if scientists perfected cybernetic enhancements or brought vampires back to life using DNA traces?
Activity:Think of a news story you have seen recently and turn it into a novel idea using a ‘what if’.
Tip: Use horror tropes to point out that the true horror is actually conformity and boredom – teenagers are looking for excitement, and often the real horror is what lies at home.
“You have got to love the people… that is what allows horror to be possible.” Stephen King
Horror isn’t about plot. Horror is about how characters respond when they encounter plot. Your characters are the single most important thing in your book. If you plot their every move then they cannot be real, three-dimensional people who act freely and believably to the events of the story. You have to give them the freedom to be themselves. Don’t make your characters into wooden puppets by forcing them to jump through plot hoops! They are much more likely to act rather than simply react if you know who they are.
Character profiles, questionnaires, scrapbooks, names. What is your character’s ‘Definition of the Self’? How do they see themselves?
Characters have to be credible (the same as the setting, so write what you know). Fiction, even horror fiction, has to be credible, it has to be a lie that can be believed. Your plot may require suspension of disbelief, but if your characters and setting are credible then people will happily suspend their disbelief. This is why characters are so much more important than plot – because characters responding to events in credible ways IS plot. When the ordinary is invaded by the extraordinary, we get horror.
Once you know your hero and your villain and your love interest intimately, plotting becomes easier and much more natural. You are less of a puppeteer and more of a stenographer because most of the time you’ll be writing down what your characters tell you to, you’ll be reporting on what they do. The villain will tell you how he wants to take over the world etc, your hero will tell you how she thinks she can defeat him etc. Always listen to your characters.
(Don’t tell all this detail, show it – you don’t need to info dump.)
The nature of the protagonist is one of the key differences between YA and adult horror. In adult fiction the protagonist is usually (but not always) an adult. They are often complacent, they often react instead of act, will sometimes rely on other people to solve their problems, and things more often than not end bleakly. In a YA horror book the character should be a teenager or a young adult, and they should be a hero – maybe not to start with, but certainly by the end. They should never be perfect, of course, and should have flaws (Alex in Furnace is a criminal and a coward). They should struggle, and lose smaller battles in the war. They should and will make bad decisions, and do things they regret (all part of them being real people, not just characters). But ultimately they need to rely on their own strength and courage and resourcefulness to defeat whatever evil they encounter. They see themselves in the hero – their flaws, their weakness, but ultimately their indefatigable, undefeatable strength as human beings. The hero changes during the story, they become a better person through good and bad, and so does the reader. The coming of age theme is essential.
Activity:Start work on a character profile.
Have to open with a hook and then keep people interested in what happens next – by asking questions. No delayed gratification, just get in there and hook them! Plant the seed of interest, make them want to know what happens next.
Start in the middle of a scene: Start in the middle of the action or horror, it keeps things a mystery and asks the question ‘what is happening here’? The action can be clear, but if the explanation is vague then it increases the mystery, it makes us wonder. Make us ask ‘who are they?’ or ‘what is this place?’ or ‘what has just happened?’ or ‘what is about to happen?’ The point of the opening is to ask that first question, the hook.
Questions are key to pacing. In every scene you should be asking questions your readers can’t wait to find the answers to. These questions can be story questions (why is this happening, and what happens next?) or character questions (who is this character and what have they done / will they do?). Every time you answer a question, you should pose another one. Some questions take longer to answer, others are answered quickly. But as long as you keep asking new questions you’ll keep the reader hooked.
Note:Doesn’t mean you have to plot – for me the process has to be more organic, a journey of surprise and discovery where you don’t know what’s going to happen – but get into the habit of thinking about questions and answers.
Prologue– a terrifying creature walks the streets, butchers a family, leaves one child alive.
Story question 1: What is this creature? Why is it here? What does it want?
Character question 1: Why does it target this family, and why is one child left alive?
Chapter One– Years later this child is living a normal life, yet she has terrible nightmares about something that killed her family.
Story question 2: Is something still hunting this child? Are her nightmares a clue to the mystery or a warning of what lies ahead?
Character question 2: How has the death of her family affected this character? Has it made her scared of everything? Is something still hunting her?
Chapter Three - Five: The child witnesses the terrifying creature on her way home from school. It kills her friend and is about to kill her but she is rescued by somebody who explains what is going on, answering story question one and two and character question one and two, but posing new questions.
Story question 3: How is the character going to stop this evil creature? Is the new character to be trusted?
Character question 3: Does the character have the inner strength to win this battle when she has been scared all her life?
And so on.
The pattern of question / answer, question / answer propels the story onwards. In the middle of your novel, the bulk of the story, these questions will largely be made up of conflicts and mysteries. The more you throw at your characters, the harder they have to work, the faster your readers will turn the pages. Keep raising the stakes.
Cliffhangers: Remember that readers are programmed to automatically close a book at the end of a chapter. You don’t want them to do that! So keep big questions for the end of a chapter – what will the character do now? Will they survive? Readers won’t be able to put the book down!