Saturday, January 27, 2007

On Writing Horror

Okay, sure, my opinions don't count for as much as many others who've published much more, but I've been kind of reading a lot of horror by new writers in the last couple months, and I've come across these problems that seem worth flagging, even if the flag is raised by me.

1) You may be smarter than your 9th grade English teacher, BUT... It would sure help if you learned (then or now) what s/he was teaching and used it in your writing. Never mind the difference between "to" and "too" or "its" and "it's" - I regularly see people who don't seem to know the difference (I assume they do know the difference, but they don't betray that knowledge) between "here" and "hear" or "your" and "you're." Never mind subtler points like split infinitives, I'm seeing constant subject/verb disagreement and shifts in tense. These are the kinds of things that automatically label you as "amateur," or perhaps more accurately, "too lazy or self-important for the rules that apply to the rest of us." And neither of those labels increase your chances of being published or read.

2) Bodily functions are GROSS, not SCARY: They also induce "shock" but necessarily in any sense that you want it in your story. I'm seeing way too much scat, I think because people are confusing the two categories of shock and fright. Sure, The Exorcist had lots of vomit, but it had done more than its share of establishing terror and despair in so many ways, that some shock laid on top was not only excusable, it added to the effect. And yes, most of us now know that during many kinds of death, the dying person's last act is to lose control of his/her bowels. That's no excuse, really, to describe it. And if you must mention it, why use bizarre verbs, like "marinated"? I think the authors don't quite understand cooking terminology: they're thinking of "basting" (though that sounds just silly, so they skipped to the next page in The Joy of Cooking) - marinating is fully immersing a piece of meat in an acidic liquid (usually a mixture of wine and vinegar and spices) overnight, so it could bear little resemblance to brief and sudden urination in a state of terror or dying paroxysm. Think of the scene in Ransom when the kid hears the kidnapper's voice and you see a puddle forming at his feet. That's about as much detail as you need about urine in your story.

3) Sexual violence is scary, but focus on the aftermath, not the actual act: If anything, describing the actual rape in clinical detail defuses and dissipates much of the terror and degradation and again reduces it to shock. Watch an SVU episode - they have described or implied every activity that I can think of besides maybe bestiality and scat (and I guess neither of those two are illegal, they're just gross - see above), and they never show anything. They focus on how traumatized the victims are afterwards, and how dehumanized and despairing are the detectives, none of whom has a normal romantic life. That's how this subject should be handled. An even more artful example would be Chinatown, where again all the focus is on the violence that has spiraled outward from the original act.

4) Sex is part of life, but needn't be described in detail: I see way too much of it on the page that has nothing to do with the story. And you can't claim verisimilitude, as though you have to describe everything, just because you're being accurate. You don't describe most of your characters' actions. You don't describe them going to the bathroom (see above), or brushing and flossing their teeth, or most of their actions during eating or getting dressed, or every lane change they make as they drive. Well, of course not, you say, because those are all boring. Ah-ha, then we've got the real reason you describe the sex - because you think it's interesting, or, more accurately, titillating. Two problems. The first is that if you describe something often enough and with enough detail, it usually becomes boring. Stale would be a better word. (For a joke, a friend sent me the URL of a pornstar's blog, and I read an entry, and I thought to myself, "My gosh, how could anyone make having a threesome in the morning and another in the afternoon sound so boring?!" But he had, because to him, it was. He'd made it routine and tedious, both in its execution and especially in his description.) And even if you've got your Penthouse Forum style down and can do titillating with a capital T, then you're really, well, writing a Penthouse Forum letter, and you should just go do that. No sense mixing genres in this case. Where sexuality can be used very effectively is when it is used like most other places where you describe action - to establish and elaborate on character. Your hero or heroine making love might help establish what a caring, emotional person s/he is, unafraid of vulnearability and trust; or it might show that s/he has trouble with intimacy, or has fears and anxieties about it, or perhaps is hiding some secret; and in negative ways, the same goes for your villains and monsters. (Though in the latter, even more care must be exercised: one bizarre implication I've found is that masturbation is thought of as the best way to show that someone is mentally unsound. If it is, then we're all in a lot of trouble.) Handled this way, sex is a highly appropriate, even necessary part of your characterization.

5) Gender is also a fact of life, but needs to be handled believably: How many gunslingers in the Old West were women? How many Medieval armies were led by female generals or warrior queens? How many courtesans were able to do as they pleased, even to the point of bossing around the emperor/king/pope and being the one who called the shots? I really don't know, but I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that it was less than 50%, which I would not at all guess from the stories I'm reading. I'm glad we're away from the Damsel in Distress as the only role for women in horror, but there has to be a believability factor. Think of the widly kick-ass action/horror film heroines - Fran in Dawn of the Dead, Ripley in Alien, Sarah in Terminator. None of them were soldiers by trade, all of them required some training before they could effectively deal with the menace, and all of them were fighting mostly to defend their child. That to me sounds much more believable than a 13th century woman who just likes to swing a sword and drink mead with the boys.

6) Historical accuracy in general is very important: I've read stories where people in the 18th century fire guns over and over w/o reloading. I've read several where men who live in the 10th or 11th centuries are said to have returned from the Crusades. This is basic fact checking. I'm not saying if you have your character get off the train in Philadelphia in 1843, that you have to find a train schedule for that year: I'm just saying make sure s/he gets off a train and not a bus.

Okay, that's all I got this morning. I can't guarantee you'll be published if you follow these, or even that you'll write well, but I can guarantee that you'll write better.


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