Running late, as usual. In more ways than one. I was looking back and realized I haven’t done a solid Halloween-related post in ages. So this is doubly long-overdue.
I wanted to revisit something I blabbed on about once a few years back. I figured it was worth going over again for the holidays and for general purposes.
When I sit down to write something scary, it helps to know just what I’m trying to accomplish. “Scary” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and some of that depends on context. Do I want to make hearts race or blood run cold? Am I trying to make sure someone never walks down a dark hall again, or that from this point on they can never eat chicken and rice without thinking of… well, other things?
Someone with a sheet draped over them can be funny, creepy, or plain terrifying, but if I don’t know which one I’m aiming for, it’s much harder to accomplish anything. I mean, I can’t get the desired effect if I don’t know which effect I desire, right? It’s like playing pool (or billiards, for you continental types). I can call my shots or I can smash the cue ball into anything on the table. Either way, there’s a chance of getting a ball in a pocket, but one’s got a much better chance of doing something impressive.
With that in mind… what kind of scares am I going for?
There’s a bunch of arguments to be made in several directions, but I think fear, as a storytelling device, generally breaks down into three basic categories. Stephen King’s said something similar a few times, and I’m kind of expanding on that in my own way. There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker,the gross out, and dread. These three form the core elements of most scary stories. They’re the base ingredients, as it were.
The Shocker– This is when something unexpected happens and makes the reader or audience jump. It’s an immediate fear caused by something happening right at this moment. When that bear trap snaps shut on someone’s leg or they get a machete in the head, that’s a shock. Ever seen someone’s eyes bug while they’re reading? They probably just found a shocker. A lot of the deaths on Game of Thrones tend to be shockers because—as violent as that world is—we don’t expect to see people we like bite it on such a regular basis. Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit with chaos and shouting to keep it going—especially on film—but a shocker is really a short-lived thing.
The shocker is a powerful storytelling tool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s important to remember that it can’t stand on its own for long. By it’s very nature it’s quick and done. There can be fallout and aftershocks, but they’re always going to be weaker. I also can’t use shocks one after another. Repetition bleeds their strength and can even make them lean into comedy or (worse yet)boredom.
The Gross-Out – As King himself names it. This is when things are just disgusting. It’s when I tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea. It’s when we spend six paragraphs going over the exquisite sensation of lifting someone’s still-attached eyeball out of their socket, maybe turning it around to get a view of the room, and then sliding sewing needles into it (maybe even throughit) again and again until it bursts and the warm liquid runs down the optic nerve and drips into the empty socket. Which then gets packed with salt. Or maybe it’s just about running a lawnmower over a zombie and describing every color and texture as the half-rotted body sprays out across the grass.
One of the big differences between the gross out and the shocker is duration. While a shock loses power the longer I try to prolong it, a gross out can gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born). Still, like anything, if it goes on too long or happens too often, my readers will get bored with the gross out, too.
Another interesting point. The audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming. Anticipation is part of it. We don’t have pages and pages of set-up, but it rarely pops up out of nowhere (because if it did, it’d be a shocker).
Dread – This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could. Or maybe it’s something we know ishappening even if we don’t actually see it. Dread is fear of potential events, if that makes sense, which puts it very close to suspense. We know any minute now something’s going to crawl out of the shed or reach out from under the bed, and the fact that it hasn’t yet is what gives us the chills. Dread needs enough space for my readers to realize things aren’t matching up within the story or within their own experiences. It works well in larger tales because there’s space for back story, but if I’ve got enough experience I can make it function in tighter spaces
Now, there’s three catches that come with me using dread. One is that it relies on me having a very solid grasp of how my readers are going to react and what they’re going to know. If I say you’ve been invited to the Strexcorp company picnic, most of you are going to shrug, put on some sunscreen, and head down to play volleyball. I have been known to have a bug thing now and then, but I shouldn’t assume everyone will find the sight of a cockroach to be the most awful thing ever. If the shocker is a sledgehammer, then suspense is the scalpel of fear.
The second catch is that dread relies on the audience having… well, not to sound elitist, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement. If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it—assuming they sit there for your whole lecture. The huge reveal about David Warner’s photographs in The Omen doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch if I come in when they’re done examining the priest’s apartment (see—you should’ve watched The Omen and then this would make sense). Dread requires an investment and an attention span.
Last but not least, dread needs good characters more than the other two types of horror mentioned above. My readers need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through. If they can’t, this isn’t a story, it’s a news report.
Now, after all that, here’s one more mouthful for you to digest. Did you notice that each of these types of horror has a different time investment? The shocker is quick, the gross out needs a few minutes, and dread really takes its time. Each one is very distinct. I can’t expect to stretch a shock over two or three pages and I can’t build a sense of dread in a single paragraph.
Once I know just what I’m trying to do, it’s easy to see how each type of horror should work on the page and also how they can work with each other. A lot of old ghost stories are little suspense tales that build to a shock. A lot of torture porn films start with a bit of dread, but then dive headfirst into gross-outs punctuated by shocks.
Y’see, Timmy, when I’m writing horror I need to be aware of the effect I’m trying to create and how much space I need to accomplish that effect. If I’m trying to build a sense of dread in less than a page, or if I want to make a shock last for just as long, my story’s doomed. These are things that are very hard to manipulate.
Of course, it’s possible to do scary things without any of these core elements, just like it’s possible to bake without using flour or sugar. But I need to be aware that working around these things means a lot of extra effort. And maybe some really clever thinking.
Next time, I want to break this bad habit of running late and start over from scratch.
Until then, go hand out candy. Oh, and write.