I’ve written both urban fantasy (the Black Wings series) and dark fantasy/horror (the Chronicles of Alice duology). In both types of series I’ve had to write frightening, occasionally very graphic scenes, and I’d like to discuss how to think about horror scenes in your own writing and what they can do for your story.
“Horror” is, I believe, a fairly charged term. People tend to associate the word with a certain kind of slasher film, one they perceive as nothing but blood splatter. While that is a perfectly valid kind of horror it’s not the only horror out there. Wikipedia says “Horror is a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle their readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.” There are lots of ways to spark that feeling in readers.
When I’m writing a frightening scene or story there are two basic rules that I like to use: Don’t Be Afraid To Go There, and Don’t Be Afraid to Step Back. Let’s talk about the first rule.
One of the things that horror does really well is it crosses boundaries. The best horror not only makes people scared but frequently uncomfortable by incorporating taboo subjects.
An example of a boundary-crosser is so-called “body horror”. In these types of stories the graphic mutilation of bodies (perhaps to create a new monster) are used for visceral chills. David Cronenberg has made a lot of films in this sub-genre, but classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” also qualify.
Every zombie story ever told exploits the ultimate taboo – cannibalism. Sure, these are dead people, and they don’t know what they’re doing, but they were once people and now they are eating other people in order to continue their own existence.
Even a vampire story is a kind of cannibal story – the monsters in the story are dependent on humans to survive, just like zombies. Vampires have become something a little sexier in the last quarter-century or so, but they are essentially human-sized mosquitoes that only want one thing from you.
The discomfort and thrill here comes from seeing (or reading) something that you know you’re not supposed to see or talk about. So when you’re writing your own horror fiction, don’t just stick to the tropes you know, or think, “I can’t write that, it’s too much.” When you get to that self-imposed boundary, cross it.
And now we come to the second part of our discussion – Don’t Be Afraid to Step Back. While it’s vitally important not to self-censor when you’re writing, there also isn’t always a purpose in writing in every single little detail. I prefer reading and writing scenes where there is so much implied that readers actually think it’s been explicit when it hasn’t been.
A great example of this is the opening scene in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. A killer has entered a house and killed a whole family, but Gaiman wrote the scene in such a way that, as he said in an interview with The Guardian, “you are doing all the work in your head. If you remember vivid murders in The Graveyard Book then I’m afraid you killed that family and not me because I never wrote it!”
I tried to use a combination of these techniques in Alice. Alice is a sexual assault survivor, and because of the world that the story takes place in there is a constant threat of that kind of violence. But because I never wanted to make rape prurient I would pull back a little when writing those scenes, sticking to impressions rather than graphic descriptions.
Overall my goal with the book was to make you feel, always, the threat of violence but to never actually see the whole picture. The few occasions when the book is explicitly gory it’s usually after something horrific has occurred, because in those scenes I felt it was important to communicate the results of the action but not necessarily describe every bit of the action.
There are lots of ways to generate suspense and terror in readers, and many of them don’t involve blood at all – look at a classic Hitchcock film like Rear Window wherein the murder mystery on which the story turns is never even seen by the viewer. Every writer has to write to their comfort level – but don’t get too comfortable. Find that balance between going there and stepping back, and when you’ve found it you’ve got great horror.