The LitFest Blog
by Charlie Higson
As someone who has attempted to scare the living shinola out of readers I’m often asked – how do you write horror?
It’s a huge subject to address in one short blog, but what are the main weapons at your disposal, and how do you use them? I suppose a horror writer has the choice of shock, suspense and revulsion. A good work of horror will be a complex danse macabre of all three. Revulsion is easy. You simply have to instil in the reader a deep physical unease and loathing. You need to turn their stomach. Shock and suspense are trickier, and they are, in many ways, the opposites of each other.
With shock, the viewer/reader is taken completely by surprise. It’s the ‘Dead hand shooting out of the grave’ moment. With suspense the reader knows more than the characters in the story. This is the ‘Don’t go down into the dark cellar, you idiot!’ moment.
A good horror film will skilfully intertwine both techniques. A bad horror film will rely almost exclusively on shock and gore. It’s easy in a cinema to get everyone to jump out of their seats – cinema is instant, things can happen literally in a flash. A sudden movement, a simultaneous roar and a scream, a headed sliced clean off, maybe a musical stab to emphasise the moment. Sound, light and movement all working together, like a physical blow to the viewer. This is very hard to do in a book. It takes longer to write – and to read – than the moment lasts… ‘Suddenly there was a roar and Old Shuck leapt out of the wardrobe, fangs bared, blood dripping from its claws. Mary screamed, but it was too late, Shuck tore her head clean off her neck….’ The danger is that the reader will have nodded off before they get to the end of the ‘moment’. And how many times can you use the word ‘suddenly’? (Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 rules for writers includes – Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”)
It’s much easier and more effective to use suspense in a novel. To really seed your moment, to let the reader know that something awful is going to happen, to manoeuvre your protagonist into a situation that we know is going to end badly. In a series of books, like I’m writing at the moment, you can really crank this up. Readers will bring their memories of the awful things that happened in previous books to the current book. So that, as long as you have some really appalling things happening early on, your reader will always have the nervous apprehension that something worse is going to happen next. You need to put your dear reader into a state of constant dread.
Writing horror is the art of manipulating your reader, and on that level it’s very similar to writing comedy – which I’ve also done a lot of. In both genres you are callously leading your reader/viewer by the nose, straight up the garden path – “Look this way, don’t look over there, this is what’s going to happen, are you ready for it? Whoops, something else has happened instead.” And in both genres you are trying to elicit a physical response – a laugh, or a scream. Both quite similar if you think about it (“She was screaming with laughter”). And in horror films the big scream will often be followed by nervous laughter, or a laugh of relief and embarrassment – “Wow, did you see me scream there? What a fool I am.”
So that’s my final observation. You need light and shade. Non stop fear and gore is wearying and desensitising after a while. Allow you’re reader the occasional nervous laugh.