Guest Blog by Selah Janel ‘On Writing Short Horror’
On Writing Short Horror
To me, horror is all about the ‘what if.’ Whether the story is grounded firmly in the real world, has a weird tale vibe, or is paranormal, there still has to be that element where a reader isn’t quite sure whether things are going to be okay or not. There has to be the willingness to believe that for as long as the pages are turning, whatever I dream up is possible. I find that especially true in short horror fiction. I love reading it and I love writing it, but it does have a special type of challenge to it. With a novella or novel (or even a novelette), there’s the opportunity to throw in a lot of detail, yank a reader back and forth through a comfort zone, and really build up the world and immerse them in it. With a short, I find I have to be more result-oriented, which can sometimes be an iffy thing. The plots of Twilight Zone work for a reason, but people have come to expect a bait and switch, especially within horror or other speculative genres. There’s no real formula to short horror fiction, but it does help to touch certain elements, at least for me. It always depends on the particular story, but there are certain things I try to do to help make things flow smoothly and cause me minimal breakdowns during the editing phase.
Even in a short story format, environment is important. Knowing where you’re at can also give you an idea as to what’s an obstacle and what’s an aid later on. Is the reader plunged into a tight, claustrophobic place where they’re close to a threat, so it’s possible that they’ll be in danger at any second? Are there things around them that can help them get away from a threat (or make things worse in the long run)? Is this a place that should feel comfortable (and thus giving way to something unsettling later on) or is this a foreign, outright unsettling place for the characters? All of that matters, and if you’ve got a short word count, you have to find ways to build this up quickly, or add description and emotion during the build of the plot or action sequences. I wrote a fairly literary weird tale called All the Little Things, and it involves the inanimate objects in the guy’s apartment ganging up on him. These things aren’t anthropomorphic and only have the assets that they’re programmed or built with, so building the world of that apartment was critical to make the story build.
Characterization is also important. You need to know what a person’s faults and strengths are to relate or distance yourself from them. The more a reader can empathize with person or situation, the more you can embed in their mind that your plot twist or threat could actually happen to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s far-fetched…if you can play everything straight enough and make things relatable, the reader should still be able to fall right off the cliff with you. It’s always uncomfortable to relate to a character in horror. You either realize that you’ve been set up to feel like a victim, or worse, you realize you actually have something in common with someone pretty vile. I’ve used both approaches, but one of my favorite stories that I’ve done is a short zombie tale called Candles. It involves a makeshift family waiting out the zombie apocalypse one Christmas Eve, and you slowly learn more about the mother’s tensions and plight as she struggles to figure out what to give those she loves for Christmas when they have barely anything left and the undead are right outside their door. Environment is important here, too, but the mother is all too human with her need for love and her regrets. It’s easy to put myself in her shoes and to see me making the decisions she does if I was backed into a corner. If I feel like I’m making myself that way, then hopefully my readers will feel the same.
If the horror elements go into extreme territory, it’s still a balance of when and how and how much to show. A lot of the time the momentum of the plot solves this (at least for me), but pacing is still important, even with gross-out horror. Description and reaction are especially important here, because the reader needs to be plunged into feelings so uncomfortable that they almost have a physical reaction—otherwise it’s just violent words on a page. Using characterization to help keep the empathy up helps to offset this, though admittedly these are the scenes that I use sparingly. I go for the gore if I really want to show how vile a character is, especially if I set it against their own casual, everyday behavior. This tends to be a staple of my vampire fiction, to show that my version of the creature may be modern and may be relatable emotionally, but they’re still bad news. There’s nothing like reading about a guy casually reminiscing about a date, then realizing he’s covered in intestine and watching said date be crunched in a trash compactor to show that this ain’t your typical vampire romance.
Momentum is something to keep in mind, as well. You need to build somewhat, but you also can’t drag and lose your readers too soon. This is where I feel I’m still finding my happy medium. I like detail and building a full world, but I get that these days people want to get right to it. I feel like I’m always fighting myself on this element, and sometimes word count solves this for me and I have to suck it up and hack out sections (ever proof that you can’t get too attached to anything you write). Likewise, when the plot gets going, it’s like I’m on a roller coaster, struggling to hang onto the bar as I’m careened right along with my characters.
Finally, the ending. I’ve been influenced a lot by the old Twilight Zone episodes, and I’m a diehard Ray Bradbury fan girl. There’s something about showing just enough, then sending your reader toppling down an implied flight of stairs with the last vignette or sentence. I feel like I’m still learning the rhythm for this, but I like to try to scatter hints of what’s to come throughout the story—the catch is that it has to be subtle enough that you probably won’t pick up on it the first read through. It’s like life; hindsight is always twenty-twenty, right? If you’re invested in a character or situation, you’re not going to recognize all the signs. You want to find out what happens, at least I do. I love it when I can’t figure out an ending, when I’m fighting that urge to look ahead to know how the hell it all fits together. That’s a great moment, and it’s when I know I’m fully invested as a reader.
I’m still learning, but I’m proud of my horror fiction and enjoying the journey. A lot of the shorts I’ve mentioned appear in my collaborative effort, Lost in the Shadows, with S.H. Roddey. While we cover a lot of different genres in the book, there’s a healthy amount of dark fantasy and horror, since those are genres we both love. She covers more of the extreme territory, but I get a few fun moments in there, as well. You just never know what you’re going to find when you turn two creative chicks loose among the shadows.
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