Monday, January 21, 2013

The Morning After

I'm going to come right out and admit it. I killed the kid with the nunchaku off as early as I did because I got sick of typing out "nunchaku." There, I said it.

With that out of the way, your regularly-scheduled post-mortem continues.

Writing scary stories is always a bit of a balancing act. After all, most things that go bump in the night tend to be rather silly if you shine a strong enough light on them. If you go into clinical detail on a zombie, for instance, it becomes familiar and predictable. I think it's pretty safe to say most people these days have their own zombie apocalypse contingency plan. I know five people with a sufficiently large arsenal of weaponry and a fortifiable house and I have them sorted mentally by driving distance and direction. If a zombie outbreak happens, I'm set. Most people are. "Grab the baseball bat, Marge! It's zombie time!"

And that's kind of a problem. Zombies (and many other horror tropes) have been so thoroughly explored, in just about any type of configuration imaginable, that there's nothing surprising or new in them. There's no fear of the unknown because they have been thoroughly detailed. Horror thrives on the unknown. Describing something in detail makes the unknown known, by definition, and it gives people a plan of action.

And that's where the balancing act comes in, because you can go too far off the beaten path, either giving out a bad guy who's so oddball and unfamiliar that none of the readers will be able to identify with it and who will then treat it as pure comedy (Night of the Lepus comes to mind) or, worse, not giving details at all, resulting in something that just feels random and arbitrary. Sure, why not, your ghost is radioactive. Who knows why?

Or even worse than that, you can get something that feels like a terrible imitation of H P Lovecraft without zoning in on the key strengths of Lovecraftian fiction: pile adjectives upon adverbs, then scribble something about how indescribable it all is, then cut and run. I wrote a billion of those stories when I was a kid. They were awful.

Horror requires a much stronger balance of elements than other types of stories because people tend to mentally tune out much more quickly with it than they do with other genres. It's because the pay-off in horror is much more definable. With a standard science fiction tale, if the reader is amused or has something to think about at work the next day, then it's a success. All you really have to shoot for when telling a story like that is "not be boring."

Horror has a more definite goal. It's a box that says "if you open this, you will be frightened." Most readers will open it and if they're not frightened by the one-third point they'll feel a little disappointed and be that much more likely to drift off. If it's something completely daft, they might even feel a little betrayed. They're expecting Dario Argento and instead get someone in a bedsheet yelling "booga booga booga."

So, you tweak elements of the recipe. Do I add more inevitability or more randomness, more mystery or more clinical detail? Do I throw in a dash of trigger points, such as fear of spiders or victimization? Do I play up the human characters, make them more likable, or do I make them real shitheads so the audience cheers when they get eaten?

In the end, all you can do is just make a really cool killer tree, give it something to eat, and then hope for the best.

In other news, my stories are edging towards novella length, according to the internet guidelines on what makes a short story short. I'm going to make an effort to write shorter short fiction, I think.

So! Smaller ideas coming up.

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