Three Rules for Writing Effective Horror
by Joseph Devon
1) Strike early; strike hard.
There's one moment in your book where you can get away with some cliches, where you can play a little fast and loose with the rules. That moment is the very beginning. Your audience has yet to meet your characters, they have yet to judge your world, and they don't know what flavor of scares they're going to get. It's then, early on, when you can lay some very effective groundwork for your baddies. A quick kill, a terrified victim, some grisly details about your killer’s MO, things like this will be swallowed greedily by your audience and will have a huge impact on the scare-level you can produce later on. If you make the point early enough that your baddies are *bad*, that notion will cling to them whenever they appear throughout your book. Think of the first shark attack in Jaws, or the opening of “It” where a fanged clown carries one boy into a drain pipe. Compared to the actions of those monsters later on, these scenes are nothing. But those scenes stick and those down payments of fear early on, pay off throughout the entire book.
2) If your baddies are going to be scary, they have to be effective.
You can’t scare people with baddies who constantly *almost* cause damage or, even worse, constantly kill two-dimensional characters. Please don’t make up cannon-fodder characters that have no depth and are only there to get slaughtered. Please. It isn’t effective. It isn’t scary. The only thing it is is overdone. Though I have a feeling that it’s more flip-side to this statement that most authors struggle with. Because if you aren’t going to have cannon fodder, then you have to have one of your real characters get killed or hurt at some point. Someone who you’ve emotionally invested in. Someone who you’ve sweat over. Someone that you’re too attached to to kill (or at the very least maim). And that can be difficult. It’s a lot easier to swat away peripheral characters than to mar one of your major creations, but please do it. A baddie who does nothing but plow through nobodies and doesn’t impact the lives of your major characters is not a very scary baddie. And a hero who goes through an entire story without getting a scratch on them isn’t much of a hero.
If you want your audience to gasp when your bad guy jumps out of the shadows, don’t make him impotent.
3) Give your readers some credit.
Your readers’ imaginations are bringing your characters, your setting, your dialogue, *everything* you’re writing to life. You can trust them to bring your horror to life as well. Yet, one of the biggest mistakes I see authors making is that they overwrite their scary scenes. The word “blood” appears twelve times per sentence and things are spraying and cracking and oozing all over the place. It’s not needed. In fact, this is the one area you can not only trust your readers, you can let them do most of your work. The fact is, with the first two rules in place, your reader will fill in an astonishing number of blanks. People’s brains love to take scary thoughts and run with them because human beings are programmed to panic and terrify themselves. You can get away with a small number of descriptive words, a bare whiff of blood, and a POV that hardly focuses on the action, and your reader will scare themselves silly. Now, I’m not saying you can be bland or do zero work and expect results. I’m just suggesting that horror writers move back the other way on the Blood Bath to Subtlety scale and show some restraint with their gory scenes. You’ll get more with less.