A Suggestion On How To Write Terrifying Horror Fiction

14 Mar

When it comes to writing truly terrifying horror fiction, the best bit of advice I can give you is that hoary old cliche ‘less is more’. It’s certainly true when it comes to horror, despite what a lot of people think. Too many people assume that scares arise from gruesome depictions, such as buckets of blood, horrible monsters and brutal violence; it doesn’t. In fact, too often, such over the top approaches are more likely to push the horror over into comedy as the desensitized audience chuckles at just how silly the monster seems or over who will die next and how. Although onscreen horror suffers the worst from this, especially on lower budgets, written fiction also suffers as the result is usually over-written and far too detailed.

The reason why overt horror, described in detail and depicted ‘fangs and all’, is twofold. Firstly, there is the problem that familiarity, at least in horror fiction, breeds contempt – it’s easy to be scared of a mysterious dark shape briefly spied before someone dies, but a lot harder to take a monster seriously as a horrific threat when it has been revealed. A lion padding towards you would certainly cause you to feel fear, but it is the fear of the known, fear of something that, however awful, can, potentially, be dealt with and must be faced – any residual horrific fear in such a situation would be the fear of dying itself, not fear of the lion, no matter how fearsome. And, whilst a lion may be entirely mundane, even the most bizarre and supernatural of entities lose most of their horror when revealed, as the threat becomes, as with the lion, one of a known threat rather than of the unknown. Sometimes, of course, the revelation may be a bluff, seeming to make the threat straightforward only to turn the tables again, such as when a creature is shown to be immune to normal weapons, but such a twist only delays the inevitable. Facing an invulnerable beast with a shotgun is no different to facing a lion with your bare hands – scary, but no longer truly horrific in terms of soul-twisting dread.

Secondly, there is the problem that not everyone shares the same fears. Write a terrifying account of a spider crawling across someone’s skin and many people will recoil with horror at the thought, but plenty will not, and many of those who were affected would have been shocked by the merest hint of a spider’s presence. Write a terrifying account of something crawling across someone’s skin and almost everyone will fear a frisson of fear as they fill in the gap with whatever scares them the most or, even, just leave it as a terrifying unknown – the unknown being about the single most scary thing there is.

Although I have long had a vague appreciation of how ‘less is more’ in horror, it was early in my writing career that I had it rammed home to me just how potent it could be when I wrote a very short piece alluding to ‘date rape’, the big topic in the news at the time. The piece was short, flash fiction in current terms, and non-explicit, ending before any attack took place, and didn’t actually specify what the attacker intended. It was published in a magazine devoted to hardcore horror of the sort that tended to involve a lot of explicit sex, violence and, indeed, sexual violence, often in quite a lot of detail. Compared to the other stories, my piece was innocuous without any of the explicitness to be found in the others. In terms of content, mine was PG alongside a stable of X-rated tales. No need to guess which story was the one that provoked the disgusted response from the readership. Because I had left it to the reader to fill in the blanks with their own worst nightmares about what could happen to them or their loved ones (or, indeed, their darkest fantasies), it hit far harder than all the explicit stories that spelt out just what happened and how in graphic detail. The writer’s imagination was no match for the reader’s in terms of horrifying them. (I finally grasped just how potent such an approach was, as a reader, when I read Torture by Arthur Machen recently – I literally felt as if the ending had suckerpunched me!)

So, to craft the most potent and terrifying of horror, leave the details to your reader to fill in and restrict yourself to setting the scene for their shock. It’s also a good point to remember when you are writing things that are not intended as horror – sometimes leaving too much to the imagination may provoke an unintended response!

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One Response to “A Suggestion On How To Write Terrifying Horror Fiction”

  1. L.A. Powell March 15, 2013 at 4:32 am #

    Favoriting this!

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