MONDAY creative writing exercise because it’s a good way to start the week: How to scare your reader
This is an extract from my article in the current edition of WHAT THE DICKENS
Horror writing comes in many flavours. Subgenres range from the psychological to vampire and cyber punk (think gritty low life in a futuristic high tech society), but first, last and always it is about making the reader afraid
Karl Albrecht writing in Psychology Today in March 2012 described five basic fears from which all our other fears stem.
Extinction – fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This can include a fear of heights etc.
Mutilation – including the fear of being invaded, taken over. It also includes phobias about animals and insects.
Loss of Autonomy – fear of being paralyzed, restricted, imprisoned, smothered – physically or emotionally
Separation – fear of being lost, abandoned, rejected, fear of losing respect
Ego-death because the worst thing that can happen to us isn’t always something we can touch or see, but how it make us feel. This includes fear of disgrace, shame, of being unworthy, unlovable.
Ok, that’s the material you are working with, but to create genuine fear the story has to be real to the reader. That’s not the same as saying that it is has to be realistic, you can allow your imagination to roam free but to capture a reader a horror story needs three essential ingredients – suspense, atmosphere and the right subject.
SUSPENSE is created when
1) The reader knows what to be afraid of (radio reports of a mad axe murderer, for example)
2) The reader understands the danger (the hero is alone in an isolated house)
3) Expectations are created (help is on the way, but prevented by numerous obstacles)
4) There are a series of small incidents or mini climaxes that heighten tension and then offer a moment of relief. (The scratching at the window isn’t the axe man trying to break in, but the branches of a tree knocking against the glass; the shadowy figure in the porch turns out to be the vicar rattling a collecting tin).
5) Expectations are realised. The final tap-tap-tapping at the front door is a man swinging an axe with a smile across his face and blood dripping from the blade.
Converted into bullet points this seems very trite and formulaic, especially with the hokey House of Hammer examples I’ve chosen, but if you add characters with whom you could identify and writing that puts you inside that house it is the stuff of nightmares.
Find two suspense writing exercises in my article Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid in the free creative writing magazine WHAT THE DICKENS