Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Wordcraft – Here’s a horrifying idea for a tale!

It seems appropriate that I’m writing a post about how to write horror stories on Halloween. Of course, you, dear readers, won’t see this until the first day of NaNoWriMo. But it’s still appropriate, because if you’re stumped for an idea for a novel (or approximation thereof) to write this month, consider a tale of horror. And consider some tips from veteran North Texas horror writer Russell C. Connor, a member of the DFW Writers Workshop, who shared his “Make ‘em scream, make ‘em cry, make ‘em -- laugh” tips with members of the Writers Guild of Texas.

Russell C. Connor
Make readers of a horror story laugh? Is that even allowable? Yes, Connor said, and went on to well, horrify, listeners with some other rule-breaking tips for writing screamfests. And just maybe, adding extra spice to a host of other genres.

“Every time someone at my day job reads one of my books,” he said, “the come up to me and say, ‘but you look so normal.’ For some reason, horror writers have this reputation for being demented psychopaths. (But) the whole point of horror is to make us face our fears.”

 And there’s nothing more terrifying to fear than being laughed at.

So when agents and publishers told him “horror is a dying genre” in literature, he laughed. Well, technically, what he did was look into the possibility of publishing his stories through small presses. When he did, he decided he could do that himself. So he did. And along the way he came up with his own rules for writing great horror. The results first horrified his WGT listeners. Then we laughed.

“Motivation for the villain in any genre is absolutely critical. All the most memorable villains have relatable motivation.”

He watched, with a trace of amusement, as we dutifully wrote this down.

Then: “But we don’t want horror villains to be relatable.” (At least he didn’t laugh when at the sight of our crestfallen faces when he said this.) “We want their minds to be alien and utterly unknowable.”

Rule #1: Motivation is the enemy of horror!

Well, at least any motivation that a normal human mind can understand.

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What’s wrong with motivation? For one thing, revealing motivation requires revealing the source of the horror itself. And the revelation of this source, he assured us, should be delayed as long as possible. Because as bad as the reveal is, it’s never as bad as the reader imagines. (If we reveal that the horror is a 50-foot long cockroach, Connor said, the reader will be a trifle disappointed. She was imagining a 100-foot long cockroach!)

You say as a writer you must have some motivation? Well, if you must, consider either an extremely simple motivation or an extremely complex one that’s withheld as long as possible. Connor, as you can imagine, is not a fan of prequels in which the “origin” stories of famous villains are revealed. “They destroy the legacy of so many talented film makers,” he grumbled.

But doesn’t any story worth its salt needs heroes as well as villains?

Of course, but those heroes need flaws – “that’s what makes them entertaining.” The villain’s strength must be to attack the hero’s greatest weakness. And the best flaw for a hero in horror (and sometimes in life) is fear. What should the hero fear? Think about what we as writers fear most. (This must be the source of so many horror stories about spiders – preferably gigantic ones – and a horde of other creepy crawlies. If in doubt, throw in giant spiders. Or snakes. Or sharks or. . . well, you get the picture.)

Rule #2: Make your hero’s flaws personal.

At this point in his presentation, Connor was stricken by one of my worst fears – forgetting what I wanted to say. However, instead of screaming and running from the room, he joked about his memory glitch, fielding questions from the audience until he recalled the point he wanted to make. Which was:

Rule #3: Humor!

“There can’t be really effective horror without humor,” he said. “There’s a shortcut in horror – and in any genre that uses suspense – and it’s humor.” It’s a trick as old as Shakespeare, using a comic graveyard scene before the horrifying revelation of an innocent girl’s madness and suicide. But the oldest tricks got old because they worked.

“Humor really covers up a lot of shortcomings in horror,” Connor said. “It breaks up the tension – and then you smash them across the face!”

And if your worst fears include writing contests, note that details of the “Cowboy Up” Western writing contest are now available at Moonlight Mesa. The annual manuscript contest by the Writer's League of Texas is now open also

. Consider preparing for it by kickstarting a novel during NaNoWriMo. Deadline is January 15, 2017.

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