This post, by Joe McKinney, originally appeared on the Moonbooks site on 4/11/12.
There is a fine art to scaring people, and like all art, it is the product of raw talent honed by craft and technique. No one can teach raw talent, of course. You either have it or you don’t. But craft and technique can be taught, and in the following few sections I’m going to walk you through five basic characteristics that all great horror stories share. Learn to incorporate these into your stories, and you’ll find your stories make more sense and, hopefully, sell better.
First, let’s talk about your story’s setting.
The key to good, memorable horror is much the same as it is in the business world – location, location, location. Many beginning writers come up with potentially great settings, be it an abandoned town, or a graveyard, or a mill, or a big scary house, and then fail to carry through on its potential. As a result, their great setting never rises above the tired old mainstays of B grade horror.
Think about all the great works of horror you’ve ever read. My guess is that, in every single one, you can point to the setting and say, “That right there sealed the deal for me. When the mother and child were trapped in that Pinto in Cujo, I was scared. When the priests entered Regan’s room in The Exorcist, I felt her bedroom door close behind me. When Pennywise the Clown spoke to the children of Derry, Maine through the drains in their bathrooms, I wanted to escape.”
But why does Stephen King’s story about a creepy old hotel in the middle of nowhere get the scares, and Joe Schmoe’s story set in a similar creepy old hotel fail to deliver? Well, think of some of the words I used in the previous paragraph. “Trapped.” “The door close behind me…” “Escape.” In every sense, the effect created is one of insularity. Through the characters in the story, we get a sense that we are closed off from the rest of the world, that we are no longer free or able to run away, that we are shut in with something very bad.
This explains why old graveyards, or cabins deep in the woods, or small towns, are such common destinations for the horror story. But it doesn’t explain why they work. The challenge, you see, is to show, through your characters, the setting going through a change. The way your characters perceive the setting is key. Think about the movie Jaws for a second. Remember when Brodie, Quint and Hooper are headed out to sea, and they get drunk and trade sea stories? They’re laughing and having a great time. Some might say they’re simply whispering in the dark, but the result is effective nonetheless. The sea seems a peaceful, welcoming place. But the next day, as they engage the shark, and it starts to wreck their boat, they begin to feel small and helpless, fighting for their lives in a hostile, brutal environment. The sea has not changed, obviously. It’s the same sea that seemed so comforting for them the night before. What’s changed is their perception of the sea. The characters in all great horror stories show this changing reaction to the settings in which they find themselves.
To achieve this in your own writing, you need to make readers feel that what was once familiar and comforting has suddenly become oppressive and menacing. In other words, you need to change your characters’ attitude toward the setting, and you do this by showing the setting before and after the horror takes the stage. If you’re sending your protagonist into a small town, you might start off by making that small town feel comforting, friendly, perhaps even nostalgic. Once you’ve established this, you’re free to turn the thumbscrews.
There’s no set rule on how long you have to take to create this feeling of comfort, of normalcy, but you do need to create it. Horror is, after all, the intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary, and if you’re going to make that work you have to first create normalcy. A comfortable, familiar setting that suddenly becomes hostile and claustrophobic is the best way to do this.