November 1, 2014 / 2 Comments

Bloodsoaked Carnage and Horror 101

            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.
            Let’s review…
            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.
October 29, 2010 / 1 Comment

The Fear-O-Meter

Hello, kiddies! Thanks for tuning in to my latest blog post-mortem!! Hehehehehheheeeee!!

Pop culture again. Ahhh, those were the days…

So, last year at this time I talked about a couple of the subgenres horror can be broken down into. It’s important to know which group your tale of terror sits best with so you know how to approach the different elements and the way they mesh together. Knowing this also helps to sell it and promote it.

By the same token, when you sit down to write something “scary,” it can help to know just what you’re hoping to accomplish. People get their heads cut off in the Saw movies, in Attack of the Clones, in The Man in the Iron Mask, and in A Mighty Heart, but these decapitations are all received in very different ways because of how their particular stories are being told. In the same way, Freddy Kruger has been a slasher, a monster, and a plain old villain, even though the character has barely changed at all. How, exactly, do you intend to scare your readers with this moment as opposed to that one? Or are they supposed to evoke the same kind of fear?

You can nitpick back and forth, but I think fear, as a sensation, generally breaks down into three basic categories. 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 food pyramid of fear, if you will, which means using and combining them in the right ways can make a variety of tasty seasonal treats.

…starting to sound like a cooking blog…


The Shocker This is when something unexpected happens and makes the audience jump. It’s the fear of what’s happening right at this moment. If you’ve ever watched someone read and seen their eyes bug, they probably just hit a shocker. Ever been in a theater when most everyone screams? Same thing. When someone walks around the camp cabin and Jason buries his machete in their skull, that’ll make you jump even watching a movie where you know people are going to get machetes in the skull. When Michael suddenly shoots Ana Lusia on LOST, that’s a shocker, too. Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit–especially on film– with lots of shouting and chaos and a few smaller shocks to keep it going, but really a shock is a short-lived thing.

The shocker is powerful, but it’s important for writers to remember it can’t stand on its own for long. As I’ve mentioned before, a good way to think of shocks is like exclamation points. You can use them! You can use a lot of them!!! But after a while, there needs to be something that actually requires emphasis! If not the shocks will start to lose power and your readers or audience will start to get bored!! Shocks eventually need something solid and lasting to support them.

The Gross-Out As named by the King himself. It’s when things are just disgusting. This is when the writer’s trying to tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea. It’s when we spend two or three pages on someone getting their limbs sawed off or just eating a peanut butter and maggot sandwich, where the little sour-milk colored larva are eating their own paths through the spread before getting crushed against the roof of the mouth by someone’s tongue. The gross out usually differs from the shocker because of duration. While a shock gets weak the longer the writer tries to prolong it, a gross out can actually gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born). Go too long or too frequently, though, and audiences will get bored with the gross out just like anything else.

An interesting point is that the audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming. We don’t linger on it, but it rarely comes out of nowhere.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of gross-out stuff moves closer to dread when it isn’t described at length. Speaking of Stephen King, we all remember the lovely “hobbling” scene in Misery, yes? What’s happening almost takes second place to Annie calmly explaining what she’s doing and why she’s doing it… even in the middle of the procedure.

Dread This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could. It’s fear of potential events, if that makes sense. You could also call this suspense or perhaps terror (if you wanted to nitpick). We’re waiting and waiting because we know something’s going to reach out from under the bed or crawl out of the closet and the fact that it hasn’t yet is giving us the chills. Pennywise the Clown gives us anxiety because we know he isn’t just a clown and it’s very wrong for him to be down in those sewer drains. Hannibal Lecter is creepy just sitting in his cell talking about the things he’s done in the past. And the zombie Julie Walker is kind of hot, but you also know she’s on that razor’s edge of probably eating everyone in the room (and not in the fun way). Dread works well in larger tales because there’s space for eerie backstories, but a good writer can also make it function in tighter spaces.

There’s two catches that come with dread. One is that it relies on the writer having a very solid grasp of how the audience is going to react and what they’re going to know. If I tell you there’s a Strigori knocking at the front door, most of you are going to shrug your shoulders and open up. Likewise, I may find ketchup disturbing, but I shouldn’t assume everyone’s skin is going to crawl at the sight of it. Paint the creepy stuff on too thin or to vague and the audience just won’t get it and they’ll be bored. Paint it to thick and they’ll be angry you assumed they weren’t going to get it. If the shocker is a hammer, suspense is the scalpel of fear.

Tying back to that, dread also relies on the audience having… well, not to sound crass, 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. It makes me sound old, I know, but part of the challenge with dread these days is the shortening of people’s attention spans. If people keep switching channels, walking away, twitting, or texting, they’re not getting involved in the story. Without that involvement, it’s very hard to build a sense of dread.

Also worth noting that dread needs good characters more than the other two types. We need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through. If we can’t, this is a news report, not a story.

Once you know just what you’re trying to do, it’s easy to see how each one works and how they can work with each other. Campfire stories are often little suspense tales that build to a shock in the same way jokes build to a punchline. A lot of the ‘80s slasher films would start with a touch of suspense, jump to shock, and then dive headfirst into the gross-out. Alfred Hitchcock could drag suspense out for ages, but knew a good shock or two could make a film unforgettable.

(mother, please. I’m trying to work on my blog. No mother, it’s not one of those websites, it’s for good people…)


Next time is mostly for the budding screenwriters. Some of you found out last week that you didn’t get one of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowships, yes? I’m willing to bet that no one reading this did, but I’m also sure some of you didn’t try for one. Let’s talk about why you didn’t get one.

Until then, go hand out candy. Oh, and write between trick or treaters.

July 8, 2010 / 2 Comments

A Shock to the System

We all know this moment. It shows up in books and films.

Our heroine, Dot, descends into the darkened cellar with only a flickering flashlight to guide the way (or a torch, for our British readers). We hear a rustle of movement. Something gets knocked over behind her–a set of golf clubs. She pans to the light left and right, revealing so many places to hide. There’s definitely someone-or something— down here in the cellar with her. There’s more movement, more noise, a few cries from Dot and then

–HAH —

the cat leaps into her arms from the top of a nearby cabinet or stack of old newspapers.

This, my friends, is what we commonly call a cheap shot. It’s when you wind up tension and expectations only to pay them off with a shock that turns out to be completely innocent. Granted sometimes it isn’t innocent because


the cat leaps away just as the psychopath dives out and runs Dot through with the umbrella from the golf bag. This is still a cheat, however, because the psychopath is just relying on shock value. All that built-up tension got paid off early with the cat and, well, the cat is not the payoff we were hoping for.

In certain activities, this sort of thing is called “premature”…

Cheap shots and shock gags are popular in stories for two reasons. One is because they’re hard to screw up. Put a racing crescendo in the soundtrack, add a racing heartbeat, splatter some gore, let rip with an off-color fart joke, and the audience almost has to react a certain way. That’s the second reason. You can practically guarantee the audience will respond how you want because they’re the lowest common denominator of emotional stimulation.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing. These little shocks are great, either in horror or action or comedy or whatever. Anything that gives the audience a little jolt out of their complacency is always good.

The problem is when that’s all a given story has to offer. A lot of stories try to get by with lots of cheap shots and shock gags because they don’t have anything else. The comedies aren’t that funny. The horror stories aren’t that scary.

There was a little horror movie I saw a while back where the suspected killer (or is he…?) had a habit of appearing from nowhere. Someone moves or the camera shifts and there he is. Walk into the office reading your mail, look up, and there he is. Open the medicine cabinet for an aspirin, close it, and behind you in the reflection there he is. Have a talk with your friend about stress, say goodbye, turn around, and there he is. Go out to get something from the fridge at night, close the fridge door, and there he is.

Notice how the italics are getting boring? That’s shock value wearing out its welcome. It’s breaking the flow again and again by reminding you this is a constructed story trying to play on your emotions. At the screening for this particular movie, I realized halfway through that the other critics and I were all doing the same thing. We were conducting the film with our fingers, cueing the suspected killer’s appearances because they’d become so predictable.

Consider, if you will, the lesson of Monty Python.

For those pathetic few of you who don’t know, Monty Python was the name of a British comedy troupe back in the ‘70s. John Cleese was a founding member. So was writer-director Terry Gilliam. There’s probably a few other faces in there you’d recognize, but I didn’t really want to talk about them.

The whole point of Monty Python was to do off-beat, nonsensical comedy. It was absurdist humor taken to the extreme, with people arguing about book stores, dead parrots, and even arguing about arguments. Unexpectedly, Monty Python became a huge hit. Their show ran for several seasons. The group did international tours. They made a couple of movies.

And they became predictable.

People started taking about jokes and skits being “Pythonesque.” It was hard to be nonsensical when people were expecting nonsense. The absurdity became standard. And right about this time Monty Python started to be a little less funny. Then a lot less funny. And then they more or less broke up.

If you don’t want to think poorly on the Pythons, consider slasher films. They dominated the ‘80s because it was easy to shock audiences with more gruesome and gory deaths. Eventually, though, slasher films almost became another form of comedy. People were laughing at them more than cringing because they’d become bored by the constant cycle of extreme death. It’s just like what I mentioned a while back about endings that come out of left-field. They become so commonplace in bad indie films that people just expect them now. They lost what shock value they once had.

Again, as I said above, there’s nothing wrong with a shock or a cheap shot now and then. Shocks and surprises are good. We all enjoy them.


You need to have more than that, though, if you want to really connect with your audience. There needs to be real tension. Real suspense. Real payoffs.

Yeah, it’s tough and, yeah, some readers simply are not capable of understanding foreshadowing and suspense. A real uphill battle. So you need to decide if you’re going to aim high or if you’re going to go for the lowest common denominator.

Because you can only be premature so many times before other folks start getting frustrated with you.

And then you’re going to find yourself all alone.

Next time, I need to talk about the developing flea problem.

Until then, go write.