Genre Lessons: Horror

Cemetery.

Image from Pixaby

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month, in honor of Halloween, we’re reading horror. Masters of horror are masters of pacing and mood. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from studying these stories.

1. Close narration (either first-person or close third-person) can create suspense, because we don’t know what’s happening outside the narrator’s immediate vicinity. A three-headed saber-tooted man-eating monster can be pretty terrifying; but what’s even scarier is not knowing where that monster is. If we know Fluffy’s somewhere in the house, but we don’t know where, and our narrator is in a closet upstairs… Readers will keep turning pages, desperate to figure out where the monster is and if/when it will find the protagonist.

2. Use setting to convey mood in your stories. Try to go beyond the basics of fall = change, dying; winter = cold, dead; etc. A story about someone whose parent just passed away could have the winter setting reflect the character’s grief. But the way the character views the setting can be just as telling as the setting itself. Someone who’s feeling content might say, “ice glittered on the tree’s branches, an armor that dazzled anyone who stopped to take a look,” while our depressed character might describe the same scene as, “ice clung to the lifeless branches, making them droop, the watery knives threatening to crack and cut at unsuspecting passersby.”

3. On a more structural level, spacing can have a big impact on suspense levels in a story. One of my horror reads kept a quick pace during tense scenes by having a lot of white space between paragraphs. Sometimes there would be just one sentence, or even one word, to a paragraph. The extra space forces readers to slow down just a little, even as they want to race to the big reveal, which adds to the overall tension.

4. Onomatopeia is great in horror. Don’t just say the door squeaks, have it CREEEAK in the otherwise silent house. Spell out the AIEEEE of a character’s scream. Use words like “woosh” and “swish” to create the feel of flapping wings or a villain’s cape.

So, those are my main takeaways from reading horror. What would you add to this list? Have you read any great horror stories recently?

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