By Julie Duffy
For those of us raised on the movies, it can be hard to know exactly how to define ‘Horror’ in short story form. Is it any story with a monster in it? Is a dark story with supernatural elements enough to count as Horror? Is Twilight Horror or Romance in disguise?
What Is Horror?
Horror, put simply, is “fiction intended to frighten or disturb the reader on some level,” says Shawn M. Garrett, editor of Pseudopod.
“On the surface, people enjoy the thrill related to being scared/threatened in circumstances which are obviously artificial, much like a roller-coaster … On a deeper level – people enjoy being able to explore dark thoughts, ideas and scenarios [to] reinforce previously held beliefs or…to question presumptions.”
“Horror is about fear and how people deal or sometimes don’t deal with it,” says Paul Popiel, a writer and editor with horror stories in two recent anthologies (Fantastic Futures 13 and Vampires Suck).
“Horror also is comfortable blending with every other genre, or taking over other kinds of stories and mimicking their elements while injecting fear into the whole.”
Speaking of ‘other kinds of stories’, Horror is another of those genres with a dizzying array of sub-genres: the classic ghost story, dark fantasy, the conte cruel, splatterpunk, bizarro, quiet horror, the weird tale, monster stories, psychological horror, some noir and dark literature…and more.
So does a writer need to know/understand them all? Our experts came firmly down on the side of ‘no’.
Shawn M. Garrett of Pseudopod, says, “while I think writers should have at least some fast and loose knowledge of the various ways things can be done in their genre of choice, they shouldn’t let a lack of an intensive knowledge of those approaches hinder them in writing.”
But it does help to “know what the reader expects out of the niche,” says Popeil. For example, splatterpunk readers expect graphic descriptions of violence, while fans of bizarro want their stories “to fall down a much weirder, and much deeper rabbit hole.”
While everyone agreed that writers should write the story they want to read, it can be useful to be knowledgeable about the genre if only to “know a little about where the sub-genre’s gone and what areas are over or under explored” (Popiel).
Garrett adds that being well-read in your genre includes knowing a bit about its history and the master writers who came before you.
“Having some idea of the major figures and what they wrote can help sharpen one’s focus as to what you do and do not want to achieve,”
It also keeps you from falling into a common trap: using overly-familiar tropes.
What Not To Write When Writing Horror
As with all well-established genres, there are some well-worn plot paths that the new writer should tread with caution. Strange Horizons’ Writers Guidelines page offers a useful list of the Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.
They go on to acknowledge that “horror stories are more often about mood or tone than about original plots”, but it’s worth treating these familiar tropes with caution. Instead, dig deeper, says Ben Phillips, a Pseudopod editor,
“If your entire plot and resolution can be summarized in a simple sentence like one of these at all, it probably wouldn’t hurt to complicate it.”
Another sign of an underdeveloped story, says writer Popiel, is “using the monster name as a way of describing the creature instead of showing the reader its powers, weaknesses, what it likes for dinner on the first Thursday of the month.”
Pet peeves for Garrett include, “over-explanation, poor pacing (rushing things when suspense would help, dragging out events for no good reason – especially when the story is merely attempting to just deploy a twist or a small idea), ambiguity used to cover writing weakness or lack of focus (or as an easy out).”
How To Horrify
But don’t despair! Our experts shared some tips for writing truly great horror, too.
Garrett says that on one level great Horror writing shares the hallmarks of all good genre fiction: “…concision, self-awareness of your goals and purpose-driven writing (what are you trying to achieve with the story? How best to do that? How not to waste the reader’s time?)” adding that in Horror specifically, the writer needs to pay close attention to “…atmosphere, interesting (not necessarily likeable) characters, pacing, use of ambiguity, acheiving the ‘uncanny’.”
R. Tallis, author of the Gothic horror novel Forbidden, says, “I have a feeling that real horror requires incomprehension.”
There is a danger, he says, in the recent trend towards creating sympathy for the monsters. It robs the story of a true sense of horror “when we give our monsters an internal psychology.”
Paul Popiel values writers who “build an atmosphere of terror or dread. Keep the reader guessing as to what’s going to happen.”
He also encourages writers to use “old monsters in new ways…building cool new creatures that I wish I’d thought of.”
The Challenge of Flash Fiction Horror
Writing flash fiction is a challenge in any genre, but it presents a particular difficulty for Horror writers.
“Horror stories depend on a ramping up of tension to the scare,” says Popeil. “… If you only have a thousand words then it’s all about picking the right details to bring things to life.”
“Honestly, I’m still on the fence about flash fiction,” says Pseudopod’s editor Garrett. “At its best, a good flash story should be hard and compact like a jewel, shining with purpose and function. At its worst, it may be costume jewelry—it looks exactly the same on the surface but is cheap, disposable and lackluster.”
He confesses he’s worried that flash fiction can tempt writers to be lazy and uncritical in their own writing (“it can be justified as undeveloped because ‘hey, it was a flash and I didn’t have the space'”).
A valid concern, especially in the atmospheric world of Horror.
To help, Garrett shared his notes on the introduction to Irving Howe’s Short Shorts, which describes four types of story structures that work well for flash fiction. Garrett suggests that the third and fourth (“Snap-Shot” stoires and “Fable-like”) might work best for Horror.
One of the strengths of the Horror genre is its ability to absorb and play with the tropes of every other genre while examining the human condition. So if you’re a writer who likes a challenge, and you’re willing to dig deep, why not try your hand at Horror?
There’s nothing to be scared of!
Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.