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Giving People the Willies · 9:15pm Jul 24th, 2019

Giving People the Willies
Three and a half more specific pieces of advice for writing effective horror.

This is part three of a (as of now) three-part blog series on advice for horror writers. Find part one here, and part two here. Also, 43rd blog that I haven't deleted out of embarrassment! I'm on a roll, ma!

We're back, back again, to writing horror. The last blog was about several aspects of writing that are extremely important to writing in general but especially horror. This time, I'm going to go over some topics that are extremely important to horror, but can also be applied to writing in general.

Sound good? Good. Obligatory disclaimer, I'm not that great of a writer, I don't have an English degree, go check out Horse Voice, blah blah blah. Let's go!

1: Buildup is king

This section was originally going to be called "Atmosphere is king", but then I realized that atmosphere is only one piece of something much larger, and much more important.

The buildup.

For a change of pace, let's talk about someone other than King for once and examine instead Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.

Spoilers, by the way, if you've somehow never read this classic short story from 1843. You can follow along here.

From the first paragraph, we know that something is wrong:

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was my sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

These are clearly not the ramblings of a sane man. Right off the bat we are told that something is going to happen to our narrator to put him in such a state—and we know it won't be pleasant. This knowledge hangs over us for the rest of the story.

From there, we are introduced to the old man, and our narrator's irrational hatred of him. Our narrator makes it very clear that he plans to commit murder.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded --with what caution --with what foresight --with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it --oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly --very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights --every night just at midnight --but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Notice how slowly Poe advances us through this scene. Not just in actual time—"It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening..."—but also in his prose: "And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye."

This is intentional. Poe is drawing this out, forcing us to hang off of every word, both wanting and dreading what is to happen next. The prose creeps forwards at a snails pace, and as it does our tension builds. But at the same time, it feels organic. It doesn't drag on too long. It's near-perfectly paced.

This continues on. On the eight night, our narrator at last makes his move, and Poe spends four long, lavish paragraphs describing his entry in the room, his first steps, the opening of his lantern upon the old man's eye, and then—

The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once --once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead.

The action only takes a few sentences—but through all the build up that leads into it, it feels earned. It is a release from the mounting tension—and it is horrifying1.

The Tell-Tale Heart is a fantastic example of the importance of the buildup, and this is something that a lot of writers who are wholly inexperienced with the genre fail to grasp. It is not enough to simply introduce something that is scary; this is a cheap trick in visual mediums, and it doesn't work at all in prose. What is important is the sense of absolute dread that leads up to the horror, because that is what gives people the willies. Taken out of context, the old man's death is not frightening; but with several hundred words of careful buildup behind it, it can send shivers down your spine. And all of this is still buildup for the final scene!

I like to think of the buildup as a combination of atmosphere, foreshadowing, pacing, and delicate prose construction. It's very much something that needs to be practiced and tweaked to get right; too quick, and the release doesn't have the right impact; too slow, and your readers get bored. But to sum it up in one sentence:

The longer you can successfully keep the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop, the bigger the payoff will be.

Or, well, can be.

2: Payoff is queen

It's a damn shame, but a bad payoff completely negates a good buildup.

See, the thing about the buildup is that it's never the memorable part of a story, at least for most people. Despite being arguably the more important component, it's the payoff, not the buildup, that sticks in peoples' minds. People don't remember the hundreds of words that lead up to the old man's death, they remember the murder itself, and the beating heart under the floorboards for which the story is named.

So, while the buildup is, in my opinion, the more important of the two, the buildup and the payoff have a strictly symbiotic relationship: a bad buildup will ruin a good payoff, and a bad payoff squanders a good buildup.

A good example of this: King's The Langoliers, the short story but particularly the miniseries. For as interesting as the premise is and how slowly it builds up to the appearance of the titular monsters, nothing was ever going to make this:

scary. Consequently, these are the only things anyone remembers about The Langoliers.

So, put thought into your payoff, too. Come up with something that's memorable (for the right reasons) and foreshadow it in your buildup. The two components work best when they play off of each other; in Tell Tale Heart, the first paragraph puts particular emphasis on the narrator's hearing and his mental instability, which both become incredibly relevant to the finale of the story.

That covers the anatomy of a scare. Now, let's talk about something broader.

3: Monsters need motivations, too

One of the core pillars of any character is their motivation.

As humans, we have an inherent need to understand the reasoning behind things—that's why ancient peoples invented religions, and why a good chunk of every mystery is not just "who?" but "why?" as well. It's part of our psychology. We need to know why.

The motivation of a character is the why. It's what lets us as an audience get behind their actions—or be repulsed by them. It contextualizes every action they take, and gives us insight into their true nature. And it's what makes their actions make sense, such that they can be followed and understood upon reflection.

Characters need motivations. And monsters are just antagonistic characters.

A clear and understandable motivation grounds an antagonist, makes them feel more real, and turns them into a character in their own right. Jason's mother wants revenge for her son, and to prevent what happened to him from happening to anyone else. Jason himself wants to honor his mother. Freddy wants to torture the offspring of those who killed him, and because he gets off to it. Michael Meyers wants to kill people because he's an utter embodiment of evil and some twisted part of his brain just drives him to need to kill, which may be the most terrifying motivation of all.

These motivations contextualize their actions. It makes their actions make logical sense. They allow you to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, and that makes them feel grounded. It makes them feel real. It's why their brand of horror feels personal, while the horror of a natural disaster like a flood or a tornado doesn't. This is the difference between a horror film and a disaster movie.

And this is true even for non-human characters. The Xenomorph from Alien is meant to evoke the sense of being trapped with a wild animal—and it has animalistic motivations. It wants to eat, it wants to survive, and it wants to breed. This is something the audience can understand, and these goals also put it in direct conflict with the other inhabitants of the Nostromo. It makes it feel real—and it makes it all the more terrifying for it.

Now, the motivation doesn't need to be made clear immediately, but it needs to be clear that it's there. You don't want anyone thinking that their actions, or any character's actions, are being made at complete random, because that makes them feel arbitrary. A character who acts this way isn't believable, and monsters are just antagonistic characters.

And—and this is personal opinion, but—if that motivation can be anything other than "kill all of my characters", then you have the chance to create an antagonist that is much, much more interesting than your average creature feature.

And maybe your monster can't have a concrete motivation, because it's an unknowable horror from beyond the stars, or a force completely alien to human logic, or a small resort town in Maine.

In that case...

3.5: Antagonistic forces need to do things that make sense

Related to the above, but important enough to make its own section.


Above motivation, actions made by any force in a story, be it antagonist, protagonist, monster or hero, need to be consistent to their (and the story's) internal logic.

Note that I said internal logic. That logic doesn't have to actually follow—Mrs. Vorhees' killing spree isn't going to bring her son back, and there are far easier ways to keep a camp closed. But to her twisted mind, this makes logical sense, and the audience can understand that. Her killings, then, follow that internal consistency. She kills teenage camp councilors having sex because teenage camp councilors having sex is what let her son drown. We can understand that, even if we know it's crazy. This consistency is what makes her work as an antagonist.

The same goes for unspeakable, incomprehensible horrors. We'll never truly be able to understand what drives something like Cthulhu—but we can tell that it is intelligent, that it has motivations, and that its goals do not spell out anything good for our species. That is what makes it work as an antagonist.

If your antagonist does things that contradict their internal logic, or their motivations, then that ruins them. It becomes clear that the writer is the one making them do things purely for creep factor or to pad the runtime. It can also create massive plotholes.

Two examples of this can be found in I Know What You Did Last Summer (which I actually watched for the first time recently): the first character killed by the movie's villain, the Fisherman, is someone who had nothing to do with the accident at the beginning of the film that is the killer's motivation. Then, soon after when he has one of the characters who did, the owner of the car, at his mercy, he simply stands there and looks menacing with his hook before leaving.

The first of these was done (as stated by the film's creators) to establish the Fisherman as a threat, and to get some early violence in. The latter is done so that the story can go on longer. Neither of them make any sense whatsoever once you learn the killer's motivations, and thus the audience starts to see the strings behind the curtain.

Your monster's motivations need to inform their actions. Their actions need to be consistent to their motivations and their internal logic. Failing at either of these will make your villain fall flat, and in a genre half-defined by its villains, that's pretty much a death sentence.

So in Conclusion...

Creating effective horror is a very delicate balancing act of prose, atmosphere, pacing, characterization, plotting, and a whole lot of everything else. As I keep seeming to point out in these things, it's certainly not an easy genre to work in. Your success is chained to your reader's emotional response in a way that is far more damning than genres like mysteries or thrillers.

But it's also a very fun genre, and one that I think deserves a lot more respect. And part of earning that respect is creating a swath of quality content, so go forth and write spooks. Practice. Learn. And one day, maybe we can finally teach Hollywood a thing or two.

Yours in ravens and writing desks,

P.S.: How would y'all feel about an overly long and critical essay about why IT 2017 is a bad adaptation and a worse movie, comparisons to the 1990 version, and on IT as a piece of media in general? Let me know.

  1. Obviously, it's a bit less shocking now, but back in 1843 this was some crazy stuff.
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Comments ( 3 )
Author Interviewer

Yeah, do it. :D I just read all three of these and it has been a good experience!

I haven't seen the most recent adaptation, but it would be very interesting nonetheless.

As for this post in particular, I always find it very useful to have things I got a vague feeling for put down in a concise manner. So, great job.

I had actually forgotten about that scene of The Langoliers so, thanks for the reminder. I hate it.
I remembered the first time we saw a langolier, with the buzzing whirlwind of destruction an impossible mouth.
I remembered that one guy who ripped paper to calm down (which is something I do) and how after he was left alone for a while he was found in a pile of ripped pages.
I remembered the scene where that one girl complained about how stale the things from the vending machine was, the first hint about what was going on.
I'm going to forget this image in a bit, if only in mental self-defence.

Going into part three my first thought was "But what about the things we can't comprehend the motives of?" so three point five was indeed a good addition.
My favorite sorts of "monsters" as the sort we can't fully define, at least in some way. Yes, the thing uses human bodies to breed, that is the why but how does the process work? It never touches them! Is it something in the air? Are we all infected?
The answers to "who"," how" and "why" are very central to the human psychic and if any one of them goes unanswered people tend to get uneasy and unease is very central to horror.

Thanks for the blog RB_

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