It’s rare that I disagree with the always-erudite Kristen Lamb. The Horror genre, however, is problematic, and I’ve explained my reasons for this statement in a lengthy and very spoilery critique of the TV series Fortitude, which, as a show, serves as a perfect example of why the addition of horror utterly destroys good—or even potentially great—fiction. This post is the “Too Long; Didn’t Read” generic, spoiler-free summary.
Horror Ruins Drama
In essence, what I believe Kristen admires in the Horror stories she talks about is actually the skill of the writer using Drama to temper the Horror elements. Consider Kristen’s example of Stephen King’s The Mist. A group of ordinary people are trapped together, panicked and frightened, and they degenerate variously into everything from murderous villains to desperate euthanizers. This is Drama. The catalyst could be anything: a fire or other natural disaster; a terrorist attack; disease – the basic premise has been done many, many times (and could just as easily be turned around as a story of hopeful survival and characters who overcome their fear to save others instead of killing them). Stephen King chose monsters and tragedy because that is Stephen King’s most-used modus operandi. But without the Drama, all you have are monsters picking off unlucky people and terrifying them. My argument is that the Horror elements damage the Drama – we can all identify with (or at least imagine) people trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation; we cannot identify with being under attack by enormous otherworldly monsters. It distances the audience, and thus becomes entertainment. Which is fine – but the story then has to work harder to deliver the Drama.
Compare this with Cujo, which has almost the same ending, but is pure Drama. A mother and child trapped by a rabid dog – it’s entirely plausible and therefore horrifying, but not Horror.
Watch the Body Count
The somewhat misguided advice given to writers suffering writers’ block is to kill off a character (or several). The problem with randomly killing off a character to give the plot some momentum is that it also eliminates any drama and conflict that character might have delivered. Instead, pay attention to every interaction and make sure you follow through with even the slightest disagreements. Then bring your characters to a boiling point of conflict and serve up a catalyst that allows them to see the situation clearly for the first time and eventually grow from it.
Characters who attempt to run away from their deeds or responsibilities, only to face a worse “trial” on the run, need to be brought back to civilization so that they can realise their mistake (and, yes, grow from it) – not killed off in the most gruesome way possible as an authorial punishment for cowardice.
Don’t Use Gore to Fill in Your Plot Holes
The tricks are to make your characters worth spending time with; to give them secrets worth discovering; or to make them fascinating and competent. Follow the interactions of your characters to some sort of conclusion. Determine what events in a plot sequence will best catalyse and aggravate the situation for these characters. If you’re bored, you need to make your characters more interesting, their reactions more surprising. Don’t eviscerate your cast because you’ve written them into a corner. Perhaps take a sledgehammer to the corner instead. That doesn’t mean you can’t have horrible things happen to your characters – just make sure you think it through (what plot thread are you going to lose; is it worth it?) and maximise the effect it has on the remaining cast.
Don’t Write Characters Too Stupid to Live
The one who threatens a clearly unhinged antagonist; the one who goes into the basement/attic to investigate a noise; the one who...
If your plot relies on a character doing something stupid, forgetting something important; losing something; getting tricked (especially a police officer talked into letting out a prisoner and themselves being locked in the cell (I’m looking at you, Trapped) – just don’t) – then your plot is too weak to be allowed to see the light of day. Fix it.
Don’t Use Monsters as Metaphors
Yes, some human beings are monstrous. Those are not the people who are going to be reading your book/watching your movie/TV show and seeing the error of their ways. If anything, these are the people who get horrible new ideas from Horror movies. I have a problem with that. There, I said it. The people who will learn something are those people who usually try to do the right thing, but also maybe like to take whatever advantage they can get – and haven’t really thought about whom they might be hurting. You can show them someone just like themselves, someone who didn’t realise that what they were doing was wrong; you can show them why. You can change minds and hearts. But not if you allow your audience the smug satisfaction of saying, “Yeah, I’ve taken advantage of a drunk girl, but at least I’m not a monster like that guy. Pass the chips.”
Far from Horror being a means of studying human nature and holding a mirror to our worst sides, as a genre it distances us from potential self-awareness and soul-searching, safely masking the choices to commit terrible atrocities as the acts of “monsters”, “aliens”, or the “supernatural”. Drama allows for the development of multi-faceted characters who might make horrific choices and then have to deal with the consequences. I’m not all that interested in unredeemable characters; I know I would rather see a story where a character lives with unbearable regret than one where a monster (human or otherwise) has to be killed before s/he/it can be stopped. By all means go dark, but don’t go clichéd, and don’t pile on the gore to hide your plot holes.