The 3 Major Pitfalls of Horror

Hello and welcome once more!

This month has been crazy and next month promises to be even crazier. Fortunately, where I come from, crazy is good! Just so you’re appraised of everything going on, here are a few updates before we get into the heart of today’s blog:

  • For the gamers amongst you, on April 8th (Friday) I’ll be attending EGX Rezzed in London (along with some of the GameSpew crew) and getting my geek on; I’m a friendly dude, so please say hi if you’re there!
  • Work continues on the Secret New Novel – currently at 62,000 words
  • Lookout for some publishing news in the near future!
  • The Four Horsemen Easter Egg Hunt‘ competition closes 30th April, so still plenty of time to get your review entry in. You can still download Four Horsemen FREE by emailing getfourhorsemen@gmail.com and requesting/demanding (whichever floats your boat) a copy

That’s enough for now. On to the good stuff.

Previously, I wrote a blog giving you my 3 tips for effective fiction writing. Now, I’m going to show you what I believe to be three major pitfalls of horror. I encounter these time and time again within books, films and video-games. Intriguingly, I believe that these primary mediums have a huge opportunity to learn from each other. For example, video-games could learn well from the depth of character and story a novel lends itself to, as empathy is a key factor in creating a sense of terror and dread. Novels would do well to learn from the way video-games uniquely place the player inside the horror (there are transferable techniques, as I’ll hopefully show).

I’ve always been an advocate that video-games can feed fiction and that they are not mutually exclusive arts (though you’d be surprised how rare it is to find full time writers who also define themselves as gamers). Only recently I picked up The Evil Within and began playing (I know it’s two years old, but stuff got in the way). Quite apart from being directed by Shinji Mikami, a favourite game dev, and the product of Bethesda Studios, who need no introduction, I was pulled by the way it claimed to revitalize the survival horror genre. In playing this game, I’ve already found inspiration for scenes in my own book, for imagery. Games allow you to create your own story; why shouldn’t you use this as a way to fuel your ideas?

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So, although I’ll be talking about the pitfalls of horror in specific relation to prose fiction, if you’re an indie game dev, a freelance film-maker or even a poet, please read on, as I believe there’s lots here for you too.

1. Lack of empathy with the main characters 

So many horror novels fail to give us empathetic characters. I believe this is something of a hangover from the Slasher movie era in which the main cast were invariably whiny, unlikeable teenagers. These kinds of films played on the human psychological trait of Schadenfreude: satisfaction at seeing those we deem to be wrong punished severely. Though there is definitely a place for these types of movies, it is more difficult to work in a book, because readers will not stay with a character for extended periods of time if they plain don’t like them.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have a dislikeable character in your story, far from it, have as many as you like, but if you want your readers to stay with you there has to be at least someone who can be rooted for. They don’t have to be an angel, they can be full of flaws, but if they possess no qualities admirable enough to identify with, we won’t care. We have to have empathy and empathy can be created for even the most villainous and awful characters: just look at Shakespeare’s tragedies, a masterclass in making us feel sorry, and even root for, the likes of Macbeth and Iago. Macbeth murders the King in his sleep, a person who has put “absolute trust” in him. He then goes on to murder his best friend and attempts to murder his son too. Despite it all, however, Macbeth’s courage at the end, facing down the entire English army, brings shivers to the spine. 

A great example from the video-game world is the recently released Until Dawn. Take a look at Mike. At first he seems the stereotypical bully and prankster, tiresome and overly macho. But then, when SPOILER ALERT Jessica is abducted, he heroically throws himself after her, risking everything. After that, time and time again, Mike demonstrates that beneath his exterior he does have emotional depth, the capacity to care, and furthermore the courage to do what is right even at a cost to himself. By the end of the game, Mike might just have been my favourite character.

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But how do writers achieve this empathy? It’s easier said than done. If you want to read some works to study how the writers do it, then read on, as it links into my next point. I’ve also provided a ‘reading list’ below for those who want to study the masters:

  • Mr Mercedes, Stephen King: In this one King makes us experience a deep catharsis for the villain of the piece, to the extent he almost eclipses the hero. Powerful writing. 
  • I won’t recommend Until Dawn because it is PS4 only. However, you should have no trouble getting your hands on Dragon Age: Origins (£19.99 for the Ultimate Edition): This is an amazing piece of storytelling (shadowed slightly by the disappointing sequel). You will care about the characters you recruit into your party in the same way you might care about a dear fiction character, fighting desperately to ensure they have a happy ending (which is harder to achieve than you think). 

 

2. Lack of convincing dialogue 

In so many horror novels, films and games, the protagonists only talk about the events transpiring. The dialogue is forced and so is the terror. The strange reality is that most people actually hold up relatively well when in dire situations; watch prank videos of people dressing up as chainsaw ridden madmen and jumping out of elevators and you won’t see people having nervous breakdowns. They calmly turn and run away at full speed. The brain has ways of dealing with horror – compartmentalising it and filing it away for later. In fact, we cope far less well with fear when we are not certain there is anything to be afraid of. For example, hearing a floorboard creek on the landing, and wondering whether there is a burglar in the house.

So, two important rules.

Firstly, if your characters are only talking about the situation at hand (‘I hate being stuck in this crazy mansion’), then this is not realistic. People talk about the strangest things and at the most inappropriate times. Memory is kind of like a muscle spasm. When people see things that trigger likenesses to events from the past, deja vu and thoughts, they normally cannot help but talk about it. Think of the scene in Cloverfield when the group are walking through the old subway tunnels and Hud can’t stop talking about a news story he remembers about an arsonist lighting homeless people on fire. This is an incredibly funny moment – and that’s ok. If you try to create an atmosphere of tension at all times, you’ll fail. The comedy builds Hud’s character (we can’t help but warm to someone so foolish but enthusiastic) and in momentarily distracting from the terror of walking through the subway, it actually reinforces the tension later on.

The second important rule regards creating realistic dialogue is that 80% of the time people do not know themselves. Let’s unpack that a little: most people do not know themselves very well. That’s why we have to go to see psychologists, or seek help, when we have mental difficulties, because we need someone on the outside to look in. Some people do have an amazing self knowledge, but these are often unique individuals in unique circumstances, such as Buddhist monks, Shaolin warriors or, in the West, ‘gurus’ who have been through transformative life experiences.

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So when people talk, especially about themselves, they are often not cutting to the heart of it. They are talking around issues, denying certain truths (either because they do not deem them acceptable by society or because it means they would profoundly dislike themselves). No one can perfectly articulate a problem. If you want to watch a film in which everyone has a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of themselves that not even a clinical psychologist could gather with twenty years of therapy, then watch The Holiday with Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black et al. It’s a truly, remarkably, awful film. The dialogue is turgidly explicit. How do these people know so much about themselves and how are they always, despite inebriation and immense emotional distress, always able to articulate these feelings with textbook specificity? A miracle.

So, when writing dialogue (whether for a game, a movie or a book) think about writing dialogue that

1) reflects the voice of a real human being with memory & experience (not a pawn only capable of commenting on what is happening in the now)

2) that takes into account people often do not know themselves very well (though later in the story they may get to know themselves a little better)

My ‘reading list’ for dialogue is:

  • The Ninja, Eric Van Lustbader: quite apart from the masterful dialogue, you will witness some of the most explosive and well-written action sequences ever penned. Electrifying and involving from start to finish, this is an amazing piece of writing that should be studied more frequently. WARNING: There are scenes in this book inappropriate for under 18s. 

3. Lack of established power parameters

The first two are very important rules for any story, though it is in horror that they seem particularly deficient. This last one, however, is absolutely key to the horror genre. You must establish the power parameters of your villain. So many authors do not properly think of what the limits of a villain’s power might be (or their heroes for that matter). Supernatural or speculative fiction can be as fantastical and crazy as you like so long as it is ‘internally consistent’ – it obeys its own laws. If vampires can be killed with a stake, and then the hero stakes the vampire and it doesn’t die, this detracts instantly from our immersion in the world (see the film Van Helsing in which this exact thing happens).

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So, before you write a novel, think about what those powers might be. If the villain can control animals but not human minds, then you might have a scene in which the villain attempts to use their power on a human, but fails or finds it too difficult/draining to continue. I’m not suggesting the rules can’t be bent. And of course, your villain may find ways to become more powerful throughout the course of the story.

But just remember to keep those limits in place.

This also doesn’t mean you ever have to tell your reader what the limits of those powers are. They can put it together themselves, work it out like a detective puzzle, but if you spell it out, it then detracts too drastically from the threat. Vulnerable villains can still be threatening, but not ones we know everything about. 

So, your last reading list, for establishing clear power parameters is…

  • Dracula, Bram Stoker: an old one, but a good’un. Stoker very clearly defines his villain’s strengths but also colossal vulnerabilities, without spelling it out to you (okay, at the end, it gets a little more explicit). Although you as a modern reader will already know these (because we are steeped in vampire lore) try to think what it would have been like to read without any knowledge of vampires at all. 
  • The Robots of Dawn, Isaac Asimov: I know I’m cheating slightly as this is science fiction. We all know the three laws of robotics, but there is so much more in this novel about the parameters of robotic interaction. Elijah Bailey’s logical reasoning is a great way to get into the mindset of rules, and how they can be bent broken or manipulated. 
  • The Damnation Game, Clive Barker: as Stephen King once said: ‘I have seen the future of horror and its name is Clive Barker’. This stunning and terrifying novel does an amazing job of creating an original and compelling villain who has phenomenal powers, but also terrible weakness. WARNING: This book contains scenes inappropriate for under 18s and that may scar you for life. Seriously. 

Well, that’s a lot to be thinking about. I’d better stop here. I hope you found this blog useful and I hope you’ll read/play at least one of the recommendations!

As always, wishing you the best.

@josephwordsmith

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One thought on “The 3 Major Pitfalls of Horror

  1. Fabulous and perceptive account of what to look for in writing and what avoid; your knowledge and technical expertise seem to be growing exponentially and I am sure your new novel will be a classic of its kind.

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