Guide to the Macabre
It’s a dark and stormy night. The wind howls against the house as a bitter rain falls from the sky. Inside, nestled warm and unsuspecting under their covers, an average middle-class family slumbers peacefully. Their hallways are quiet — almost too quiet — until one of the unlucky suburbanites, a young child, hears a scratching at their second-story window. At first, the child thinks it’s just a tree branch and rolls over, unassuming. But the scratching continues, and in their awakened state, they hear their name whispered in the dark. Once. Twice. “Let me come in,” it says. “Let me come in.”
Horror is one of those genres that’s been picked to pieces over the last few centuries. Ideas have been done and done and done to the point of near-exhaustion. What makes an effective piece of horror nowadays is being able to arrange the story in a new and inventive way.
The above is a solid start to a genre piece. It has all the basic elements of horror: imagery, tone, and tension. An award winner? Not quite, but a solid start nonetheless.
Let’s be honest: it’s difficult to write horror (or any type of genre piece). What you’re working with are recycled ideas. Tropes, as they’re called. In any type of writing, tropes are scenarios that are easily recognized. Generally, they’re the devices that make genre pieces work, i.e. a dark alley, a weak character that gets killed first, “a dark and stormy night,” etc. They’re images or ideas that suspend our beliefs in a certain way in order to set tone or mood. Typically, this is achieved through word choice.
Take, for example, the sentence “It’s a dark and stormy night.” Most of us can attest to what it’s like to be cooped up during a thunderstorm after the sun goes down. It can be spooky, scary, and sometimes, if the storm is strong enough, downright terrifying. Including a sentence about a stormy night places us in a specific setting. If we were to say, “It was a bright and sunny day,” the tone would drastically change.
This is the Power of Specificity. It isn’t enough to have the right characters or a clever plot. What a good genre piece boils down to at its heart is tone. Word choice should focus on the senses. Sentences should be sweeping and filled with vivid, actionable verbs and particularly chosen nouns. The entire time you’re writing you should be managing the reader’s expectations. Think of it like taking the helms of a buggy or carriage. You want to always be in control of the reins. If the reader gets ahold of them, they figure out the plot and will more than likely dismiss your story.
Building tension is how we avoid letting the reader on to what we’re writing. Devices like irony and contrast are a great way to build tension without giving up the ghost. They flip the text on its head. Suppose you start a piece with, “It was a bright and sunny day,” but then immediately take the scene into an unexpected place, like, “All the better to dry the severed heads.” This contrast in images provokes readers and draws them in.
Probably the most difficult challenge in writing truly great horror is making your story universal. We’re not talking about the old monster movies here. By universal, we mean engaging, interesting, and original enough to not only draw the reader’s attention but maintain it. Using tropes as bases for our work can be helpful. They provide outlines that have worked for others in the past and help set the tone for our writing. It’s sometimes hard to avoid using tropes in genre writing because those very tropes are often what make a genre a genre; however, be warned! Tropes turn readers away. They can be seen as cop outs, and the last thing a writer wants is to have their work considered stale or phoned-in.
Now, imagine the child turns to face the scratching at the window. What do they see? Nothing? A small child like their own? A black cat? Or their mother? At least a version of their mother, her hair darker, drenched and stuck to her face. She carves at the window with her hands until the glass cracks and her fingertips streak blood.
"Dakota," the child hears their father mutter at the doorway, "let your mother in."