Genre Lessons: Horror Revisited

Haunted house.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, as we did last October, we’re discussing horror. The first thing I learned from this is that the teens in my community are really into horror right now. Every time I do book talks, I start out by asking students what they’re reading and telling them what I’m reading. Many of them were interested in the horror novel I mentioned, in some cases more so than the books I brought with me. I’m definitely going to add more horror for the books I talk about next spring.

But I digress. As far as writing lessons learned from reading horror, this month reaffirmed just how important word choice can be. When describing a scary place, the right words and tone can make all the difference. “Snow white” conjures a different image than “bone white,” and an unpleasant smell described as “rank” isn’t as gut-churning as one described as “like rotting corpses.” If you want to scare your readers, you can use descriptions that evoke creepy images even if you’re talking about a sunny afternoon at the park.

Pacing is also key to increasing the tension, and the creepiness. If the characters are exploring a house we’ve been told is haunted, don’t have the ghost appear right away. Let the characters take their time going from room to room, finding slightly creepy/off-putting things, our dread slowly growing until finally we see the ghost. The more you draw out the tension, letting it rise slowly, the scarier the scene will be.

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