Writing & the Art of a Good Scare

 

I try to sound sympathetic, but secretly   the stories are music to my ears.

I couldn’t sleep.  I had to put your book   down for a while.  The cover was so  scary that I had to take if off.  I can’t look at dead leaves the same way.  My husband dressed up like your character and scared me to death when he jumped out of the closet. (He’s a keeper!)

The great Harlan Ellison once advised me to avoid labels like the plague, and I know some readers are forced to argue my case at their book club meetings.  The scariest book I’ve ever read may be Toni Morrison’s Beloved, alongside novels like Pet Sematary by Stephen King.  Horror is just a label.

But I like to write scary stuff.  I don’t know why.  If I want to write about a woman in a difficult relationship, her lover is an immortal.  If I’m reuniting a character with her grandmother, Grandma has been dead for years.  I can’t help myself.  Sometimes I wish I could.

Often, the supernatural element is more gentle and metaphysical, but once in a while I set out to give readers nightmares.

Original hardcover: My Soul to Keep (1997)

It’s not an easy task.  Novelists have to compete with real-life headlines and everyday turmoil that are far scarier than anything we can dream up.  Haunted house—so what?  The bank just foreclosed on your house.  Your boss just laid you off.  Your parent is in a nursing home.

The challenge of writing scary fiction, I think, rests with the very thing that appeals to us as readers and writers:  We’re looking for an escape. No matter what else happens to us over the course of our lives, we won’t have to confront a demon that can possess us.  Most of us, anyway.    Horror fiction scares us in a safe context.  As both a writer and a reader, I look to characters unfortunate enough to land in these books for tools about how to behave when the world caves in on us.

My favorite experiences as a writer are when I can make myself cry…or scare myself.  The crying is easy—I’m a softie.  I can find myself bawling as I write a scene a reader might encounter without the blink of an eye.  Whatever pain I’ve pricked might be purely personal.

But if I scare myself…chances are, I’ll scare the reader too.

The scariest book I’ve written may be a novel called The Good House.  It’s my only book about characters facing a force that’s Evil through and through—so evil it had to be put to sleep hundreds of years ago, and my characters accidentally woke it up.

Every writer of scary fiction has a different philosophy about how to scare the pants off of readers, but I’ll use The Good House as an example of what worked for me.  (And bear in mind that many of these tools are useful in creating engaging fiction across the board.)

1.)    Create characters your readers believe.

This is probably the most oft-ignored rule in bad horror movies and fiction.  You can create the most frightening concept imaginable, but if you don’t have real people to unleash it on, your readers will yawn.  Who would read a 300-plus page novel about a dog barking outside of a Pinto unless they really cared about the mother and son trapped inside?  (Cujo.) Ask Stephen King how important characterization is in creating horror fiction.

While I was writing, I tried to make the protagonist in The Good House especially vivid by pinning up a photo of Angela Bassett, after whom my lead character was named.  I tried to infuse my book’s Angela with the brittle strength Bassett conveys in so many of her movie roles.  The rest was just trying to imagine how I would behave if I found myself in her horrible predicament.

2.)    Delve into your own fears.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes writers do everything they can to avoid touching the heart of what frightens them.  The Good House was chock full of real-life horrors:  A friend’s sudden loss of her teenage son.  A story from a shaman about a demon gone wild.  A bizarre newspaper story about a man who drowned his son in front of his playmate.

Most of all, I was grappling with intense feelings of isolation during the six years I first moved away from my family, job and friends in Miami to live in the Pacific Northwest.  I expressed my own sense of rootlessness in a character with similar feelings, only amplified.   It’s no coincidence that I wrote my first supernatural novel, The Between, after experiencing 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.  (And that hurricane later showed up in my novel The Living Blood.)

3.)    Create a real world.

On one level, your readers are daring you to scare them.  They’ve hunkered down into a mindset that says I-know-this-isn’t-real-so-there.  A short prologue that introduces your supernatural element or gives them a tastes of the horror to come is a fine hook…but after that, slow down and take your time.  Ground your story in the mundane aspects of life we all know and recognize…and then slowly begin to show your supernatural hand.  By the time your readers realize you’ve roped them into believing the unbelievable, it’s too late.  They’re stuck on the ride.

Also, give your characters—and your readers—time to breathe.  One thrill-ride after another will desensitize them for the moments you really want to count.  Slow down.  Add some levity.  A quiet dinner.  A love scene.  Then…gotcha!

4.)    Steer clear of movie clichés.

The Good House has elements of both a traditional haunted house novel as well as an Exorcist-style demon…but I didn’t set out to imitate anything I had seen before.  My challenge was to try to re-imagine familiar concepts and make them my own.  In her last novel, Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler delved into vampire mythology with her own unique interpretation, drawing on her skills as a science fiction writer.  In my view, far too many writers set out to write horror fiction because they’re inspired by movies rather than the route any good writer should follow—reading a lot of good literature and developing a unique voice and perspective.

If you’ve seen it a million times before, so have your readers.

Don’t watch horror movies, except for fun.  Read, read, read.

Note for screenwriters:  This applies to you too.  If you want to write horror scripts, READ horror scripts.  And Oscar-nominated scripts.  And any quality scripts you can get your hands on.

I wrote three drafts of a screenplay adaptation of The Good House for Fox Searchlight with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes. My creative breakthroughs as a screenwriter during that time came after reading scripts like Josh Olson’s A History of Violence, Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys, by Chris Maker & David and Janet Peoples.

Watching the films is cool too, but I learned far more from reading the screenplays before and while viewing the final product.

Where’s the movie version of The Good House?  So far, still on paper.  In my imagination.  Like most film projects, it fizzled out, awaiting a new home.

But meanwhile, Steve and I are collaborating on our first horror novel together—a zombie novel called Devil’s Wake.  (It originated as a short story, “Danger Word,” we published in an anthology called Dark Dreams, recently reprinted in The Living Dead 2.)

And yes, it’s going to be scary.

*****

2015 update: The Good House is currently optioned again. My newest short story collection, Ghost Summer, is on sale now. My YA zombie series with Steven Barnes, Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls, is also available now. WATCH the short film adapted from “Danger Word”: www.dangerword.com.

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8 Comments

Filed under On writing

8 responses to “Writing & the Art of a Good Scare

  1. Love these tips! Trying to figure out if I’m brave enough to read The Good House for Halloween. 🙂

  2. Chip Armstrong

    Your article was a nice read, TD! I like that you suggest that writers should slow down and pay attention to the mundane details in life to hook the reader. By the way, I absolutely loved “The Good House.”

  3. Awesome, Awesome post. These tips aren’t just for horror writers, but for novelists period.

  4. val

    Thank you again for the great tips. and the awesome work i havent read all of your work yet however im sure ill have finished it by the end of the summer. Your one of the rare women besides Toni Morrison that have intreagued me verbally in a way that i havent seen in years. You are certainly one of the greats and you rank extremely hi on the totem pole of greatness!

  5. Audrey

    I can only agree that The Good House was the most frightening novel I’ve read in ages. Your books are first wonderful, amazing tales, and do defy labels for me. Thank goodness for you–I was running out of things to read in the horror genre. Thanks for the advice, too—eating myself up with fear trying to write a book that is shaping up as a creepy fairytale (didn’t start that way)

  6. Tahnia

    Thanks for the tips. The Good House is hands down the scariest book you’ve written. I don’t watch horror anymore, but I’d make an exception for your work.

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