Three Tips For Making Your Horror Stories Re-Readable

Well, since I seem to be re-reading a few horror novels this month, I thought that I’d talk about re-readability today. After all, a horror story is at it’s most frightening when the reader encounters it for the first time. They don’t know what to expect, so they are more likely to feel shock or nervousness. Fear of the unknown is, after all, one of the most powerful types of fear out there.

But, if you want people to re-read your horror story, then what can you do? Here are a few basic tips.

1) Shock tactics: This is the crudest and least reliable way to get readers to come back to your horror story, but it can work sometimes.

This technique involves including something so shocking that it will linger in the reader’s memory long after they have forgotten everything else about your story. Whilst this will put some readers off from ever re-reading your novel, it may also spur morbid nostalgia in some other readers and make them want to re-read the story years later to see if it is as shocking as they remember.

Again, this is a very crude way of adding re-readability and it will probably backfire with a portion of your audience. But, don’t underestimate the value of “Is this really as shocking as I remember?

2) Atmosphere: A more sophisticated way to make your horror story re-readable is to include things that don’t rely on startling or shocking the reader. In other words, things like atmosphere, creepy background details, thematic elements, unseen horrors and stuff like that.

If you are able to create an ominous sense of dread, then this is probably going to “work” even when your reader already knows how the story’s plot will turn out.

This is why, despite some fairly dated elements, the vintage horror fiction of H.P.Lovecraft not only has an enduring fanbase but has also inspired many other horror writers too. Instead of relying on cheap shocks, Lovecraft tends to focus more on things that are creepy no matter how many times you read them (eg: psychological horror, unseen monsters, atmospheric descriptions etc..).

Likewise, if you create a suitably original, atmospheric and creepy fictional location for your story, then this place is going to linger in your audience’s imaginations. And, with the courage that comes from knowing how a story ends, your reader might even get nostalgic about this place.

A good videogame-based example of this are the first three “Silent Hill” games. Not only do these three game have an incredibly unsettling atmosphere that remains scary no matter how many times you play them, but the nightmarish locations are so creative that you’ll probably want to re-visit Silent Hill every now and then just out of morbid nostalgia.

3) Hidden depths: An even more sophisticated way to make your horror story re-readable is to add hidden depths to it. To add themes, subtext, humour etc… that only really becomes obvious when the reader already knows what to expect. In other words, put something behind the scares and shocks that your reader will only notice when they return to your story more well-prepared for it.

A great example of this is Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Guts”. This is, upon first reading, an incredibly gross story that will make even the most jaded horror fans grimace and wince with horrified revulsion. It is a story with an inventively grotesque final act that you can’t un-read. It is the kind of story where having the fortitude to finish a first reading of it is probably something worth bragging about.

Yet, when I re-read it a year or two later, I found it hilarious. Because I knew what to expect, I didn’t feel shocked by the story’s events. So, all of the dark comedy hiding in the background was a lot more obvious than it had been the first time round. The immature stupidity of the characters, the common theme between the story’s three acts and the exaggerated nature of the story’s events are extremely funny. But, you’ll probably only notice this when you re-read the story.

So, yes, hiding a lot of interesting stuff behind your horror story’s more obviously frightening or disturbing elements can be a great way to give your readers some “added value” when they re-read your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Ways To Tell A Re-Readable Story

2014 Artwork Re-readability Sketch

Apart from Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics [sorry about the spelling mistake earlier], Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Billy Martin’s “Lost Souls” (written under the name “Poppy Z. Brite”), I hardly ever seem to re-read things.

For quite a lot of stories, once I know the plot and how the story plays out, it just loses all of it’s suspense and mystery. It doesn’t feel like I’m venturing out into uncharted territory again.

But, with the stories and comics that I like to re-read, it’s like I’m coming back to an old friend again. Like I’m re-visiting a familiar holiday resort. Yes, they may not have the same magic that only comes with reading a story for the first time, but they still feel interesting and fascinating.

I’m not quite sure if I’ve written about this subject before, but there are four things you can do to make your story or comic more re-readable:

1) Depth: All of my favourite re-readable, we-watchable, re-playable etc… things have a lot of depth. What this means is that there’s so much stuff hidden in there that you’ll notice something new every time that you go back to it. This is a lot easier to do in comics, since you can hide all sorts of cool stuff in the background that your readers might just skim over the first time that they read your comic. But it’s possible to do this in prose fiction too.

In prose fiction, one good way to add a lot of depth is to hint at more than you actually show in your story. I’ve mentioned this before in other articles, but it’s a seriously useful technique and it’s fairly easy to do if you have a good understanding of both your characters and the “world” of your story.

For example, in the original “Sherlock Holmes” stories, Watson (the narrator) will occasionally briefly mention other cases which Holmes has worked on, but won’t often go into detail about them. Many of these cases were never turned into short stories either. Well, at least not by Conan Doyle anyway…

Of course, these unexplained cases have provided a lot of source material for fan fiction writers over the past century or so, but they also add a certain amount of depth to the original stories too. As a reader, you get the sense that Holmes and Watson really do have a life outside of the few cases which Watson has decided to document.

Adding a lot of depth to your story will also mean that at least some of your readers will geek out about it too . It means that they’ll come up with their own theories about your characters, they might even write fan fiction and, most importantly, they’ll probably re-read what you’ve written at least once.

2) Characters and role models: This goes without saying, but almost all of the re-readable things that I really love have unique, well-written and interesting characters.

Whilst slightly generic characters, stock characters etc…. might be ok for a story which someone is only going to read once, if you want your readers to come back, then you need to make sure that your characters are either people your readers would want to spend time with or that they’re people who your readers find absolutely fascinating.

Not only that, if your characters are well-written enough for people to see them as role models, then this will also make your story re-readable. By “role models”, I don’t mean that they should be clean-living, puritanical, self-righteous bores (which is usually what people in the media expect a “role model” to be) – quite the opposite in fact.

If you can write a character which appeals to your readers’ inner rebel, their inner eccentric, their inner libertine, their inner “manic pixie dream girl”, their inner badass etc….then that character will probably be someone who your readers might want to spend a lot more time with.

3) A unique narrative voice and world: I’ve written about this subject before, but one of the things which can make a comic or a novel incredibly re-readable is if the story is told in a totally unique and fascinating way. If it feels like the writer is a unique person with their own unique perspective on the world and their own unique way of telling a story.

A perfect example of this is Billy Martin’s “Lost Souls” (written under the pen name of ‘Poppy Z. Brite’). This story doesn’t really have that much of a plot, but it’s still incredibly re-readable partly because Martin has such an excellent, unique and descriptive narrative voice. Here’s an example from page 199 (of the 1992 UK Penguin paperback edition): ‘The audience was a sea. The music pulled like the Mississippi; he could be swept away, he could drown. But drowning might be sweet. In his throat his voice was thick wine. The pale hands snatched it and bore it up on a cloud of clove smoke.’

Whilst a unique narrative voice isn’t essential for a re-readable story, many easily re-readable stories (such as “Neuromancer” by William Gibson) have a very distinctive and unique narrative voice.

Likewise, if the “world” and settings of your story are unique and interesting (or even if they just show a familiar real place in a unique way) , then this might also make your readers want to revisit your story.

4) Emotional relevance: I’ve almost certainly mentioned this quality before in other articles, but if you want to make your story re-readable, then it must feel emotionally relevant to at least some of your audience. It needs to be a story that they feel that they can relate to on an emotional level in some way or another. A story which makes them feel slightly less alienated and alone in a sea of irrelevant popular culture.

This doesn’t mean that your story has to be realistic – quite the opposite in fact. Fantastical settings and metaphors can be used to show emotional truths in a way which cold, stark realism might not be able to do.

Likewise, it can sometimes help to be at least slightly non-specific/ambiguous/general when it comes to the emotional themes in your story, so that they feel relevant to a larger group of people.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂