As anyone who enjoys reading or writing horror or thriller fiction will probably tell you, you can have too much of a good thing. The same thing is, surprisingly, true for erotic fiction too – but I won’t cover this genre in this article.
It’s slightly counter-intuitive, but whilst a story in one of these genres should scare, thrill or excite it’s intended audience, you can’t actually do this by including nothing but scary/disturbing or action-packed scenes in your story.
As I’ve probably said before, without a contrast between “safe” and “dangerous” or “ordinary” and “exciting” in your story then everything quickly just becomes boring.
It’s like trying to hold a fireworks display in the middle of a bright summer day – the fireworks might look spectacular, but they won’t really stand out against the bright blue sky.
For example: If a horror story contains literally nothing but ominous apparitions, oceans of blood and terrifying monsters (whether human or supernatural) then it often loses it’s scare value pretty quickly because people quickly know what to expect and aren’t really that shocked.
Likewise, if a thriller story contains literally nothing but car chases and gunfights then, believe it or not, this can get very boring after a while.
Even if you think that one of your favourite stories is the one exception to this rule, take a closer look at it and you’ll probably find that it actually isn’t. You see, there are actually quite a few sneaky ways to spread our the good stuff in your story without your reader realising that you’re doing this. Here are three of them:
1) Atmosphere: Although you can’t fill your story with nothing but dramatic stuff, it doesn’t mean that you can’t trick your readers into thinking that this sort of stuff could happen at any minute. The main way of doing this is through the atmosphere of your story.
For example, if you’re writing a horror story about a swarm of flesh-eating leeches that lurk in the plumbing system of a small village in the middle of nowhere, then you can’t show the leeches attacking people on every page. Your readers will get bored quickly and the leeches will have no-one left to eat after about a hundred pages or so.
But, you can show you characters pausing cautiously whenever they so much as look at the shower or go to wash their hands. You can show them hearing the occasional ominous gurgling sound in the background. You can show a dripping tap suddenly stop dripping. I’m sure you get the idea.
All of this stuff doesn’t actually show the flesh-eating leeches, but it gives your reader the impression that they could attack the main characters at any second by creating an uneasy, ominous and threatening atmosphere.
2) Backstory: If you’re writing a fairly “ordinary” scene between two scary/thrilling scenes, then you can spice it up a bit by giving subtle hints about your main character’s previous experiences with these kinds of things in the past. These can either be included briefly in dialogue or, more cleverly, by how your main character reacts to things.
For example, if you’re writing a thriller story featuring a grizzled ex-commando as the main character and your current scene features him sitting at a train station and waiting for someone, then you could add a little bit of drama to it by adding a line like “As he stood up and reached for a discarded newspaper, he felt a lancing pain in his knee and thought back to that mission in Antwerp five years ago. No, he thought, this will be nothing like Antwerp.”
Likewise, having secondary characters briefly refer to something interesting that happened in their past or showing traces of an interesting past (eg: “The old woman lit her cigarette and effortlessly blew a heart-shaped smoke ring“) can also be a subtle way of keeping your audience interested during “ordinary” scenes.
3) Mix it up: Just because, say, horror becomes less scary the more often horrific things happen in your story doesn’t mean that your non-horror scenes have to be completely “ordinary”. Just because you’re taking a break from one type of interesting scene doesn’t mean that you can’t include other types of interesting scenes. So, don’t be afraid to mix it up.
The thing to remember is that for any scene to have a dramatic impact, it must contrast heavily with the other scenes in your story. So, it’s ok to include other interesting stuff as long as it is different from the main interesting thing in your story.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂