It’s true. I am a horror writer. I do a myriad of other things, other writings, but I find more often than not this is the first thing that comes up when I’m asked either via casual dinner conversation or a simple Twitter introduction what I write.
Most of what I write is dark. Partly because I have always been fascinated with horror and the rise and fall of heroes within the genre, but also because of the truths it can tell in unexpected ways. I don’t go for gore, if you were wondering. Ever since I became an agented horror writer, I’ve gotten questions that range from “How do you do it?” (I’m not sure. I just write) and “What makes a horror story?” (The ones that tell stories and appeal to you) all the way to statements like “I can’t stand gore” (neither can I) and “Horror is so hard for me. I’m too squeamish” (well, believe it or not, so am I).
When my lovely friend Kat asked me to write for the wonderful blog, PubCrawl, one that I have admired since I was a querying writer and still do, I deliberated over these questions I was asked and how to best help those who are curious to try the darkest of young adult and middle grade genres. And I found it. I want to walk you all through how I write on the subject of fear and use my own fears to both thrill the audience and let go of my own.
Step One: What are you afraid of?
What scares you? You probably know immediately. It can be something silly. Something truly terrifying. A past experience that made you forever afraid. But changes are, you know immediately what scares you. Or perhaps twelve things that do. Now, as writers, we all know the act of writing to be very cathartic. Sometimes painful and it can make us want to pull our hair out, but cathartic. Now, imagine if you took those fears to the page. Scary, right? Terrifying even. Somehow putting that scary dream or that too-close-for-comfort brush with death down on the page makes the terror we experienced all the more real. But it also doesn’t. Once it’s out on the page, it’s gone. The terror is taken out of it because you’re allowed to release the hold of that fear on you. One of my favorite writers Neil Gaiman recently said on his Ocean at the End of the Lane blog tour, in summation, that “horror writers are some of the happiest people you have ever met because they take their nightmares and inflict them on someone else.” That is completely accurate. At least for me. I find in writing my fears down, and I have many, I release them. And that is a beautiful thing in itself.
Step Two: What scares other people?
I’ve found that in structuring my stories, even my short ones, I have to think outside my own fears. This part can be tricky, because it really is subjective. I try and research a lot at this point. Take my short story about the murderous Elf on the Shelf. I myself am not terrified of the little Elf on the Shelf, but I do find it creepy. And from there, I expanded on what others might find terrifying – dolls. When asked, people with a fear of dolls or even Chucky, tend to share the consensus that they are either afraid their dolls are watching them or that they will come to life and attack them. So, through that, I elaborated and embellished what I imagined an elf with the power to murder a person would do. It can be scary, thinking in the head of a killer or a monster or something else with the pure intention of destroying someone else, but every story (save for the happy bunny that had a good day) has a villain The villains of horror simply have the double-fold capacity of bringing about our worst fears and doing it in the worst possible way. It’s enough to make any writer run in terror from the notion of writing horror, but once the writing process begins to flow out of you in your storytelling and you as a writer let go, you may find writing it as enjoyable as writing any other genre.
Step Three: How do you get in a villain’s headspace?
There are plenty of great posts on writing villains, but not as many touch on writing horror villains. These play by the same, albeit, darker rules than other genres, so it can be difficult going darker than you would normally go. Much like the famous quote of not staring into the darkness and not letting it stare back into you, the same is true when writing horror villains. With most villains, we know to write them well we must make them appear justified in their own minds and that the course of their actions is validated, even without companions to back up their theories. But with the horror villain, we must make the basest of our fears real in something or someone else. Not only that, we must play Hannibal’s Will Graham and become that deep and terrible monster that grips the corners of our bed sheets and drags unsuspecting victims off into the night. We as writers must become our carnal needs of hunger and dominance and lust. It can simultaneously thrill and terrify to write this way, but to write a good horror villain, we must do this. Either by random acts of violence that make the hero stand taller and learn something in the face of it or through intelligent monsters that know perfectly well what they are devising against humanity. Again, it can be hard writing dark and deep. But it makes for better villains. Just make sure not to start too long into the darkness that you lose your way.
At any rate, these three steps are a great way to get a start on writing horror and how to tackle your own fears through writing. I hope you find them helpful. Again, theses are strategies I use when I sit down and write any horror story, but these don’t encompass every technique I use. An artist never gives up their secrets all at once.
CATHERINE SCULLY is a writer and illustrator of Young Adult and Middle Grade Dark Fantasy and Horror represented by Carrie Howland of Donadio and Olson. When not writing stories or scripts, she is a professional designer and animator while earning her graduate degree in creative writing. She can usually be found watching Sam Raimi movies with her husband, tiny son, and eight pet rabbits. She acts as the Young Adult Editor for the Horror Writers Association while contributing to various blog groups and online magazines.