Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bad Horror


Flash Fiction Online publishes all genres, so I read everything from westerns to romances, to historicals, to literary, to Tolkienesque fantasy, to space opera.

But of all the genres, the one in which I read the most really awful ficiton is in the horror genre.

Why is that?

Let me tell you.

The greatest error in wannabe horror writers is an overabundance of concern for the punchline at the expense of telling the story. So, what I end up reading is horror story after horror story in which superficial characters engage in superficial activities that end up leading to a totally unexpected ending. The old "SURPRISE!!" ending; an ending that was not set up for within the story. For example, some time ago I read a story in which the protagonist was hunting the monster. First of all, the story offered nothing hugely unique, nothing particularly interesting that made it stand out from the hundreds of other gritty-hero-chasing-monster stories out there. At least until the ending in which, SURPRISE!!--it turns out the protagonist is actually a VAMPIRE!! Gasp! Horrors! Oh, my! Punchline, no story.

This type or story shows that the author fails to realize that the suspense in a story is not provided by the surprise at the end. It's created by the events leading up to that ending. And the ending should never be a complete surprise. Never. Not even if you think it's clever. The ending should always be a logical conclusion drawn from the evidence given. It may be startling, it may be somewhat surprising, but it should never be nonsensical.

On the converse, the ending should never be too predictable.

It's a fine line that's challenging to walk, but mastering it is essential if publication is the goal.

Secondarily, wannabe horror writers often rely too much on violence. Horror, as a genre, is not about violence. It's about fear. It's about an emotion rather than an action. Violence doesn't always elicit the type of emotion that a good horror writer wants.

As Ramsey Campbell, author of The Influence, said: "In the worst horror fiction, violence is a substitute for imagination and just about everything else one might look for in fiction."

In other words, it's the lazy horror writer who relies on violence, blood, guts, and gore to create the fear and suspense.

Besides, it's not violence that's so frightening. What's REALLY frightening is the THREAT of violence. What's REALLY frightening is the capability of the human monster to create fear in his fellow humans. Thanks to Stephanie Meiers, vampires aren't scary anymore. Thanks to JK Rowling, werewolves are just our old friend, Professor Lupin. In reality, Mary Shelly's monster was never as frightening as the idea that man messing around with the powers of the gods creates things that we are unable to control. Thanks to the film, I Am Legend, zombies are still frightening, but only because they represent a loss of control over the circumstances of Legend's life--not the fear that they eat us, but the fear that they MIGHT.

Control. That's where horror lies--in the fear that circumstances are beyond our control.

Unfortunately, not many people read this blog, so it's unlikely I'll be reading fewer badly written horror stories because of it.


Good article on writing Horror:
How to Write Today's Horror


Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for your post. My WIP is not a horror story, but it has elements of horror in it. I'm going to use your lesson as a guideline while working those chapters over. My challenge is balancing the horrific actions of the co-MC with acceptance of the MC of those actions without sounding contrived.

AJ Brown said...

I tend to agree with you on this. When I first started writing horror, I did exactly this. I guess it comes from years of watching slasher movies--not much plot, but a lot of death and gore for gore's sake.

Then, a couple of years ago I started thinking about writing differently. I didn't want to just be violent but develope the emotion and tension in stories, develope the stories better.

I'm not there yet, but still working, still developing.

"Control. That's where horror lies--in the fear that circumstances are beyond our control."

This is an awesome statement.

Thanks for the post and I look forward to reading more in the future.


Brad Nelson said...


Jeremy D Brooks said...

I think that's true in many genres (just think how badly Fight Club could have ended if Pahulik wasn't such a good storyteller). Good post.

Anonymous said...

As one of the "not many who read" your blog, I say, thanks for telling me the not so obvious.
Tho not a horror writer per se, I've written a few that haven't seen the light of print. Your post gave me insights into the why-nots and some maybe-ifs that I'll use in rewrites.
My take on your thoughts is that Avatar's "surprise" protagonist--the planet itself--falls into this category. While the film alluded to the planet being "alive", I felt the ending was too much of a surprise, a deus ex machina. No horror, suspense, there, but maybe the same idea you're positing. Stlll, loved the movie.

Anonymous said...

Yes. And yes. And yes again.

As a reader for a horror mag, I nod in agreement. Try and scare me instead of just grossing me out. My friend says, "People doing disgusting things doesn't make it horror." It's the tension. It's the fear. Fantastic post.


g d townshende said...

Fascinating read. I enjoy reading horror, but I tend to write more SF/F. I seem to recall reading several years back an interesting distinction between horror and terror: Horror is that which scares you, but which isn't actually possible. That which scares you, but which is actually possible is terror/terrifying.

I just recently discovered Flash Fiction Online and was going through the page on the staff when I found the link to your blog. I was thinking of submitting an old, never published story of mine when I learned that it's too short for FFO. My story is a drabble, 100 words long.

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