Horrors!

Before I start the prompt, I want to let you know about a science comics contest for kids between ten and eighteen. One of the contest sponsors is my friend, kids’ book writer/science writer/intrepid Antarctic explorer Karen Romano Young, and this link is on her website: https://www.karenromanoyoung.com/scicom-comics-contest. Please let me know if you or a sibling or a child is a winner. And good luck!

On December 8, 2019, Poppie wrote, Do any of you have advice on how to write a horror novel, especially on how to make it scary? In movies, you can rely on camera angles, lighting, and sound, but how do you accomplish this in a book? Also, does anyone have any good horror/thriller book recs (I don’t do sexual content or excessive gore.) I was thinking about starting off with Edgar Allen Poe and Coraline.

Initially, I wrote back, I can’t help much about horror, because I’m such a wimp I can’t watch it or read it. Here’s one thought, though: Don’t reveal everything until near the end. Our imaginations do a lot of the work in scaring us–the villain half seen, the incantation half heard, the fright of bystanders.

And Song4myKingwrote, I don’t generally read horror, but I enjoy thrillers. Some recommendations …
– just about anything by Mary Higgins Clark. These are murder mystery thrillers intended for an adult audience, but they are pretty clean. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of them, but I don’t remember anything objectionable.

Alfred Hitchcock’s books. Actually, I’ve never read any of his, but some of my siblings have loved them. I’m pretty sure they’re clean too, because my mother kept a pretty good eye on what we read, and my brothers were reading them voraciously in their early teens.
– Ted Dekker’s books. Some of these might get a little more into horror. I haven’t read very many if them, so I’d say read them with caution. I’ve read and enjoyed his Circle series (RED, BLACK, and WHITE), which flips back and forth between a real world thriller and a fantasy setting; and I’ve read and partly enjoyed Thr3e, (yes, it’s spelled like that) which I would call a psychological thriller.
– Code of Silence, Back Before Dar
k, and Below the Surface, by Tim Shoemaker. These should probably be at the top of my list, since they are my favorites of these recommendations. And they don’t have objectionable content. They are intended for tweens and young adults, but I loved them as an adult, and so did my mom.

As for how to make books scary, I’d say it’s important to think of it on both the big picture level and the individual scene level.

Consider having a “ticking clock,” or some deadline when something bad is going to happen.

In short, make sure there’s always something to be afraid of.

By individual scene level, I’m thinking more about how you can convey the feelings of fear or unease within a given scene.

Your word choices can set the mood, and even sentence structure can make things feel more tense. You can think of this type of thing as the writing equivalent of the movie’s soundtrack. It’s creating a feeling on an almost subconscious level.

Then there are details. Carefully choosing which details to include in a scene is like the lighting and camera angle. Think about weather. You can include details of the dark clouds looming, or play a bit of the irony game. Set the character’s unease against a perfect, cloudless spring day for contrast. Think about surroundings. Is there anything in the environment, or any other people near by that can add to the mood? Most importantly, probably, think about the characters. What are their reactions? Posture? Body language? What does it reveal about their thoughts?

In short, make the reader feel the fear that the character is feeling (or should be feeling!).

One more note. Gail, do you still need more questions? Because you could take Poppie’s question in a broader sense. A post on conveying the right tone for any type of story could be very interesting.

These are great from Song4myKing! And I always need more questions!

Before I move to tone in general, a little about horror from my experience as a reader and watcher.

Dean Koontz may be a good choice to read. I’ve read only Watchers, which I loved. I think Koontz straddles horror and suspense. I don’t remember age level.

Many years ago, I read Rosemary’s Baby (high school and up) and was very scared. I just reread several pages of the sample that Amazon provides, which comes near the beginning. I approve of the writing–lots of detail, the tiniest hints dropped in of the danger lurking in the apartment that the likable young couple are thinking of renting.

There’s nothing breathless in the tone, no obvious foreshadowing. What may engage the reader and feed the horror is how easy Rosemary is to identify with, how innocent and sweet, how clueless. In the few pages I read I had to watch her bumbling disregard of danger. I didn’t feel Yikes! yet, but I felt it coming.

Here the stakes are high–the end of the world.

In 1955, when I was seven or eight, the horror movie Creature with the Atom Brain came out. (This was not long in historical time after the atom bomb was dropped and World War II ended. Atomic zombies, Nazis, and gangsters are involved.) Murder and mayhem are at stake. I saw the movie and had nightmares for months. Then, voluntarily, I saw it again and had nightmares again. I just read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I doubt that, even then, adults would have been very frightened. To this day, though, I remember what terrified me. Early in the movie, a policeman visits somebody’s home, where a little girl lives. The policeman is kind and plays with the girl and her doll. Later, after he’s been turned into a zombie, he comes back, picks up the doll and holds it by its hair or a leg, and he’s wooden rather than friendly; he doesn’t care about the little girl. That’s what got me, that he no longer cared about her (me).

The nub of that can be used for more realistic horror. The inexplicable withdrawal of love can be horrifying–or tragic–even without huge stakes.

The scariest movie I ever saw was a 1960s British psychological horror movie, Repulsion (older than adult, older than geriatric–certainly at least high school). In it, a young woman commits murder twice–but she thinks she’s acting in self-defense. She’s both villain and victim. Special effects reveal her deteriorating mental state. A rotting rabbit is involved. As I watched, I pitied her and was terrified. I would prefer a medieval torture rack to ever watching that movie again.

In Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the character we care most about can’t help herself. In Repulsion, paranoia has turned her mind against her. In Rosemary’s Baby, her lack of paranoia works against her. In both, there’s a balance of power issue. The MC is the victim. In some horror movies and books, the ones that turn out okay, the MC recovers control in time.

Let’s look at my own Ogre Enchanted, my prequel to Ella Enchanted, in which my MC Evie is turned (by Lucinda) into an ogre because she refuses the proposal of her best friend Wormy. The only way she can transform back is to accept a proposal from Wormy or anyone else. Physically, she becomes all ogre, a pretty one by ogre standards. Mentally, she’s half and half. Among other things, she’s hungry all the time, and humans and dogs and everything that moves looks tasty. The novel is a romcom, so Evie embarks on a search for love and also for ways to remain in the company of humans and heal them, since healing is her calling.

Her human side is able to control her appetite. She doesn’t eat the family cat or her mother or Wormy, but if I were writing horror, she’d eat the cat for sure and probably a human or two whom the reader cares about. The horror would be strongest in her distress at her own actions and her inability to control herself. The persuasiveness of an ogre would make it all worse. She could charm Wormy into offering parts of himself, while her human side is in torment. Aa!

So we have two contrasting tones: romcom and horror, set apart by the degree the MC can control what happens. Evie has to have trouble making things go her way or there would be no story, but if she has no control, we get horror or, I think, tragedy. Possibly humor, if it’s all exaggerated–exaggeration is one way to achieve a humorous tone.

What other elements of tone might there be?

Our MC’s thoughts help set it. We get adventure if she thinks about solutions to the troubles that beset her, tragedy if the solutions are there and she can’t take advantage of them.

What we draw our reader’s attention to is a factor. In Rosemary’s Baby, tiny details of the apartment and the building are on full display. I just picked up my fave, Pride and Prejudice, which is a romance and a comedy of manners, and opened it several times at random. What I read about every time was personal interaction, revealing relationships and character. Setting, which can help set a tone, is barely sketched in. Contrast this with suspense in a story that takes place in a haunted house–the house is almost as important as the MC.

Here are samples of beginnings of books from several genres. Directing the reader and voice come into these:

Science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up): Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

Historical thriller with a hint of magical realism, John R. Maxim, Time Out of Mind (high school and up): …But what made him afraid, in a way no bar bully or snarling dog could, was snow… Jonathan Corbin saw things in the snow. Things that could not have been there. Things that could not have been living.

Mystery (clever, humorous, and intellectual), Rex Stout, The Black Mountain (may be okay for middle school–it’s been years since I read the Nero Wolfe series, which this is part of): That was the one and only time Nero Wolfe had ever seen the inside of the morgue.

Middle-grade adventure, Sharon Creech, The Wanderer: The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me.

Notice what the reader is made to see or consider. Just saying, I admire Sharon Creech’s voice.

To summarize, some ways to set a tone include: MC’s control or lack of control of her situation and even her thoughts; our MC’s thoughts and attitude; and where we direct our reader’s attention.

Here are three prompts:

• Some fairy tales lend themselves to horror. “Snow White” is one, in my opinion. She’s mysteriously passive all the way through. And what’s more horrifying than being placed in a glass coffin and then being brought back to life by a kiss from a total stranger who assumes she’ll be glad to marry him? Write a horror version of “Snow White.”

• Give the horror treatment to another fairy tale. To me, good candidates are “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Hansel and Gretel.”

• Try “Rumpelstiltskin” as a mystery. Rumpelstiltskin has taken the child of the miller’s-daughter-turned-queen. Your MC, the fairy tale gumshoe, has been hired to find the child.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. And “The Goose Girl.” I’ve always had a horror of beheading.

    OTOH, it might be a fun challenge to make a horror story out of the fairy tale you LEAST expect. Thumbelina, maybe?

  2. This is such good timing. Generally I avoid reading or watching horror, but I accidentally started a short story yesterday with some heavy horror elements, and I’m enjoying trying to figure out how to control the reader’s emotions. I’m definitely falling back on what I remember from reading Jekyll and Hyde.

  3. Speaking of potentially dark stories:

    I’m trying to decide the best way to approach a project.Anyone want to give their 2 cents on which sounds like it would work best?:

    1. Fits the theme beautifully, but would have a super-depressing ending. Charming young idealist tries to make peace between enemies, fails lethally.
    2. Same as #1, but from the POV of a character who lives.. Maybe slightly less depressing? Has to explain what happened to the CYI, so maybe not.
    3. Deals with the aftermath of what happened above, 15 years later, POV of the survivor from #2. Bittersweet ending, may require flashbacks.
    4. Same premise as 3, POV of a character who wasn’t there 15 years ago (Best friend of the CYI, who asked him to come along) and feels guilty about it. Bittersweet/hopeful ending. Requires flashbacks.

    • Pleasure Writer says:

      I like number 4 a lot. You say it would be written from a guilty character’s POV. I feel that guilt is something that every person relates to and understands, and I think that for this reason it can bring very meaningful scenes and dialogue. I also love the bittersweet/hopeful ending–those are my favorite. 🙂

    • The story would be for the When Worlds Collide anthology from Zombies Need Brains, so I want to emphasize the culture clashes.

      (ZNB is going to have 3 new anthologies open for submissions. I love these. They’re fun to read, and even though I’ve never sold to them, I’ve sold stuff I wrote for them somewhere else.)

    • I think this horror post got to me. 🙂 I’m trying a version of #4, with the flashback info in the form of a nightmare. (Or maybe I’ll make it a literal flashback.) We’ll see how it works.

  4. I would go for #3. Maybe there could be some sort of redemption, something that makes the CYI’s life and death not be entirely in vain.

  5. I would reccommend Agatha Christie’s books. I think she’s more of a mystery/suspense author, but when I read And Then There Were None, I was biting my nails like crazy!

  6. Thank you, Gail! This post (and the fact that I’m reading Winter, the Snow White-inspired last book of The Lunar Chronicles) just inspired me to write a Snow White based horror story. About the fact that the Queen eventually discovered that what the huntsman brought her wasn’t Snow White’s heart.

  7. Writeforfun says:

    Personally I think the Juniper Tree is one of the most horrifying fairy tales out there. Decapitating a child? Also I was pretty grossed out by the one about the red shoes where they had to cut off her feet. Really it’s kind of both fascinating and horrifying to read through the original grimm fairytales – some of them were surprisingly dark!

    Quick question – any advice on how to keep from introducing too many new characters at once? (or too few, for that matter)

    My current story involves sort of a military academy for kids; and naturally, as a setting where there are going to be instructors and guards and lots of other children around, there are lots of people to introduce to my MC’s.

    In my first draft, all of the adults were basic cardboard cutouts, but they have since become distinct characters with their own attitudes and quirks and personalities. Likewise there are 25 students in my MCs’ troop who have also, most of them, become distinct and layered characters over time as well.

    I know I don’t need to introduce ALL of them in the first chapter! Or even in the first book – some of them won’t become important until the second or third books, so I know I have time. Still, I know I need to start introducing some of them, but I feel like I’m not quite getting the right balance. I don’t want to introduce too many characters and leave the reader confused, and I also don’t want to make a blank sea of nameless bodies.

    Is there any rule of thumb for how to find a good balance of new character introductions?

    • With a novel involving (currently) around 75 characters, I would also like help with this. One thing I’ve done is sort the characters into categories. Primary characters are the POV characters and possibly the main villain, secondary characters are the main non-narrating characters, tertiary characters are characters who show up several times but aren’t super-important, and quaternary characters are the cameos. I’ll use Lord of the Rings to demonstrate the difference between the categories. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are the primary characters, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are secondary characters, Gandalf, Saruman, and Theoden are tertiary characters, and the quaternary characters would be just about everybody else. (Rule of thumb: if you’ve forgotten their name by the time you finish the book, they’re probably a quaternary character.) Anyway, I think the general rule is to introduce the characters in approximate order of importance, so it’s helpful to know what the order of importance looks like.

    • Fairy tales are actually pretty dark stuff! The originals, anyway.

      I read advice once, I forget where, that said 3 at a time is a good way to introduce characters. Enough so they play off each other, but not too many for the reader to keep track of.

    • I’ll throw in my two cents. I haven’t tried to write anything with a really big cast yet. (My WIP only has about ten important characters.) But what works well in books by other people is to rattle off a list of names when the MC is introduced, then to bring them up one or two at a time in interactions with familiar characters. Dialogue is a good way to do this, i.e. “B told me that… Is it true?”. Just try to give characters a few cameos before they’re thrust out on the big screen.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I knew I’d written a post about this! And I wrote two: Pleased To Meet You on 6/29/2011, and The Old Writer Who Lived In a Shoe on 8/19/15. Writeforfun–and anyone else–can look them up.

  8. In one of my WIP’s, I’m having a really hard time deciding on the overarching plot. It started out as an action story about how humans develop a race of sentient, chameleon-like cats to defeat the giant rats that have invaded Earth, but my MC doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with the cats until after the story’s climax. He has a rocky relationship with his father, which is a major part of his inner change, but the father only shows up at the beginning and the end. I’m considering making the main plot arc how he relates to the antagonist, who starts out as his friend, but, again, that doesn’t become interesting until the climax, when the antagonist’s true nature is revealed. And, for various reasons, I can’t just start the book with the current climax. Any advice on which one should be the main plot?

  9. When the MC does meet the cats, how do they relate to each other?? What has the MC been doing about the giant rats? Do either he or his father know about the cats? Why don’t the MC and his father get along? Are either the rats or the cats sentient?

    • At first, the MC and the cats are simply curious about each other, but as they work together, they begin to see each other as allies. He hasn’t been doing much about the rats, because he’s not a military type (the rats are about the size of elephants, so most people try to stay away from them). He and his father both know about the cats, which are hugely controversial, and his father’s opinion of them is a major factor in his wanting to learn about them. He and his father don’t get along because his father, a former politician, has been trying to force him into politics his whole life. Rather naturally, he resents this, especially since he has (before the rats show up) a very promising career in computer programming. The cats are sentient, the rats are not. (At least not so far as I’ve said. The rats are kind of the looming antagonists. They only show up twice, but since everyone’s terrified of them, they have a pretty big impact.)

      • Random brainstorming:

        Maybe his father created the cats, and the MC doesn’t think it’s fair to create a self=aware species and use them as fighting machines?

        Maybe something the father did caused the rats to show up, or to get huge?

        • “Doesn’t think it’s fair to create a self-aware species and use them as fighting machines.” This is precisely the argument against the cats. Unfortunately, his father isn’t nearly scientific enough to create the cats, but it’s an interesting idea. I could get him involved in the climax, though. I had been planning to use the MC’s brother there, but his father would make it a lot more interesting. I also like the idea about his father being involved with the rats showing up in the first place. My current backstory involves some government officials being aware of the aliens before the rats arrive, and I might be able to work his father into that.

  10. If Gabriella Shell is reading, I just realized that Melissa Mead tagged me on the question about self-publishing (on the blog post “Back Side”), and I added a lengthy comment to your post. Sorry I missed it earlier.

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