What A Nightmare Taught Me About Plot Twists In The Horror Genre- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Nightmares and horror fiction article sketch

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote an article about writing (and storytelling in general). It’s also been a while since I wrote about the horror genre too. Even so, I’m going to have to start this article by talking about my dreams for a while.

As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later – although I should warn you that, since this is an article about both nightmares and the horror genre, it may contain some disturbing descriptions. But, I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

The night before I wrote this article, I had a nightmare (which was probably caused by the fact I was watching “Supernatural” at the time). It wasn’t really your garden variety anxiety dream, it was an actual nightmare – with creatures and everything. Well, one mythological creature of some kind, a monster hunter and everyone else.

The interesting thing about this dream was that it wasn’t actually seriously scary until the very end. Yes, this dream actually had a creepy plot twist.

The twist was, of course, that I (unknowingly) turned out to be the ancient creature that the monster hunter had been following. I haven’t even seen “The Twilight Zone” and even I know that this twist is taken directly from that show.

In retrospect, this melodramatic plot twist should have been obvious – given that the monster hunter shot me within two minutes of the dream starting ( at the time, I just assumed that he was aiming at someone else and had missed). Not only that, when I actually saw the bullet wound later in the dream – it was surprisingly small, almost painless and totally bloodless.

Then again, this wasn’t really that shocking for the simple reason that, in most other nightmares that I’ve had, any horrific injuries that I sustain are almost always totally bloodless and only mildly painful at most. It always seems perfectly normal at the time for some reason.

No, the really creepy part of the dream was the sudden change in the emotional reactions of everyone around me towards me when it was revealed that I wasn’t as human as I thought I was.

Although I overheard the monster hunter talking about the creature earlier in the dream (and mentioning that it can be harmed with milk), it wasn’t until after I’d seen my injuries in the mirror that the monster hunter suddenly appeared behind me and poured a glass of milk over my head.

Although the milk produced a theatrical cloud of smoke and some loud hissing sounds, it wasn’t particularly painful or frightening. It was everyone else’s shocked and/or hostile reactions that startled me into waking up quickly.

So, why am I talking about a nightmare that I had? What does any of this have to do with storytelling?

Well, it has to do with how plot twists are handled in the horror genre. As anyone will tell you, all good plot twists should be foreshadowed earlier in the story. To make a plot twist truly shocking, the reader needs to see a couple of subtle clues about it earlier in the story that theoretically give them a chance to work out the twist before it is revealed.

In the horror genre, readers expect a lot of strange and horrific things to happen. They expect tragedy, unusual characters and bizarre events. As such, there’s a lot more room for horror writers to hide clues about upcoming plot twists than there is in many other genres.

For example, I mentioned that all of the injuries in my nightmares tend to be totally bloodless. Most of the time, this just feels like an “ordinary” part of the dream – except for the one time that it was actually a clue that I was actually some kind of ancient creature. If this dream had been anything other than a nightmare, the fact that a gunshot hadn’t really hurt me much would have been a huge clue that something wasn’t right.

Another thing to remember about plot twists in the horror genre is that at least half of the shock value comes from the way that the characters react to these plot twists.

Yes, even if the twist itself is extremely shocking, it’s often only truly horrifying when the characters actually react to it. Regardless of whether they react with abject horror or with cold indifference, character reactions are an extremely important part of any plot twist.

Again, the truly frightening part of my nightmare wasn’t the fact that I was some kind of immortal ancient creature (since this, in itself, would be kind of cool). It was the fact that the people around me suddenly saw me as some kind of monster that had to be killed in the most horrific way possible. That was the true horror of the nightmare!

So, remember to foreshadow your plot twists carefully and – more importantly – remember that your characters’ reactions can make the difference between a scary plot twist and a silly plot twist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Good Horror Stories Are Mystery Stories

2015 Artwork Horror Stories Are Mystery Stories Sketch

Although this is an article about writing genuinely scary horror fiction and/or comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows (again) for a while. There’s a good reason for this that I hope will become clear after a couple of paragraphs.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been watching an American TV series called “Supernatural” recently. This is a TV show about two brothers who travel across America to search for their missing father and, along the way, they often end up investigating various malevolent paranormal phenomena that they encounter (eg: vengeful ghosts, evil creatures, ancient curses etc…).

Since “Supernatural” is the first proper horror-related thing that I’ve watched for a while, I eventually asked myself “Why are the first eight episodes of this particular show so scary, when other horror-related shows I’ve seen in the past usually only have one or two genuinely scary episodes every season?

Although I worked out a lot of reasons for this, I also realised a universal truth about the horror genre and – more importantly – what makes a horror story frightening.

That truth is that “A good horror story is also a mystery story”.

Genuinely scary horror stories often rely on one of the most primitive fears known to humanity – the fear of the unknown. This fear is behind a lot of common fears – such as a fear of the dark (since you can’t see what may be lurking in it) and, most commonly of all, the fear of death (since no-one knows for certain what, if anything, awaits everyone after death).

The unknown is a powerful thing for the simple reason that our imaginations often have to “fill the gap” and make sense of something we know nothing about. If there’s even a hint of danger, then our imaginations are probably going to assume the absolute worst due to thousands of millennia of evolved survival instincts (I’m not a neuroscientist, so I don’t know the exact details of how or why this works – but I can make a good guess).

We all know that a mysterious abandoned house in a horror movie we’re watching on TV will not pose any direct threat to us, but the parts of our brains that evolved many thousands of years ago to protect us from actual genuine danger can’t always quite make that distinction (after all, prehistoric people didn’t have TVs). So, parts of our brains see this and think “DANGER!“. Voila! We are scared by something that doesn’t actually endanger us.

But, in addition to this, people are naturally curious. This is another one of our ancient natural instincts that has served us well – I mean, you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer if it wasn’t for several centuries of natural human curiosity about physics, mathematics, chemistry and electricity. Curiosity is also another natural instinct that horror writers can use to their advantage.

Whilst the unknown might be frightening, it’s also absolutely fascinating. After all, we have to make the unknown known.

In other words, whilst one part of our brain is shouting “DANGER!“, another part of our brain is shouting “FIND OUT MORE!” And, it is in the tension between these two parts of our minds that genuinely scary horror can be found.

To use a classic example, this is why – when we watch part of a horror movie that absolutely terrifies us – we usually won’t just turn it off and refuse to watch more.

Instead, we’ll usually cover our eyes, but still peek at the screen occasionally (and, yes, I’ve done this at least once when watching “Supernatural”). Two ancient parts of our brains are vying for dominance and this tension adds extra drama to something that is already frightening.

So, if you’re writing a horror story or making a horror comic, then don’t make the mistake of telling your audience everything early in the story. Leave things mysterious until later in the story. Your readers will be terrified by these mysterious things, but they’ll also instinctively want to know more about them…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Ways To Add “Fridge Horror” To Your Horror Story

2015 Artwork Writing fridge horror article sketch

In case you haven’t heard the term “fridge horror” before, I should probably explain what it means. “Fridge Horror” is a term coined by a (surprisingly addictive) website called “TV Tropes” and their article about it defines it as: “Fridge Horror is, simply put, when something becomes terrifying after the fact.

In other words, it’s a kind of delayed-reaction horror which will sit in your audience’s minds, ready to go off when they least expect it. It’s the reason why you suddenly find that you can’t go to sleep because you remember part of a horror movie that you watched a couple of days ago. Or, more likely, you remember part of a horror movie that wasn’t actually in the movie.

You see, good fridge horror relies almost entirely on the audience’s imaginations. Yes, showing something horrifying on the page or on the screen might shock or frighten your audience – but your audience’s imaginations can conjure up far worse horrors that you might expect.

So, how do you add this kind of horror to your horror stories? Here are three basic tips:

1) Strange rules: If you set up a few strange rules in your horror story, then you can use these to your advantage when you want to add some fridge horror to your story.

This is because, if these rules apply in all situations, then you can briefly hint at far more horrific situations and then wait for your audience’s imaginations to apply the rules to those situations hours or days later.

For example, in the main villain in your horror story is a vampire, then you could create a rule which says that he has to drink someone’s blood every seven days in order to survive eternally. Once you’ve done this, you could just go down the traditional horror route and show him randomly biting someone every week. This would be gruesome and dramatic, but probably not that creepy.

However, if you want to add some fridge horror to your story then you could have the vampire briefly say something like “The fifties were kind of boring, I spent most of the decade working as the headmaster of a boarding school in the middle of nowhere. The teachers liked me though.” before moving on to another topic of conversation.

If you bury it in a longer conversation, then this line of dialogue is likely to pass by your audience unnoticed on first reading. But, when they think about your story later and remember your rule that the vampire has to drink someone’s blood every seven days – they will realise that this rule also applied when the vampire was working at a remote boarding school. And, since the teachers liked him – it’s pretty clear that the vampire didn’t bite them. So that means… hey presto! Instant fridge horror!

2) Subtle hints: Quite a few months ago, I randomly ended up watching some gameplay footage of an incredibly creepy computer game called “Five Nights At Freddy’s“. This is a game where you have to work as a security guard in a novelty restaurant which is full of animatronic robots… that have a habit of malfunctioning at night.

Even just seeing footage of someone else playing this game was enough to haunt me for at least a day or two. So, I daren’t actually play this game. But, apart from a few jump scares and creepy-looking robots, there is nothing overtly horrific or gruesome in the game. But it’s still absolutely terrifying because most of the worst parts of the game are hinted at rather than shown.

For example, at the beginning of each level – your character receives a phone call from the previous security guard, who gives you advice about how to do your job (eg: hints about how to play the game).

Anyway, there’s this one scene where he’s talking about how one of the animal robots had to be retired from service after “the bite of ’87“. He then makes a brief comment about brain damage before moving on to another topic.

Although you don’t see anything gruesome in this scene, these small details will… sooner or later… conjure up an extremely graphic mental image of a robot trying to eat someone’s brains in the middle of a restaurant, in the middle of the day.

So, if you want to add fridge horror to your stories, then casually add the briefest and most undetailed description of something horrific to your story, and then move on quickly. Your audience’s imaginations will be forced to “fill in the gaps” later and, because they don’t have many details to work with – their imaginations are probably going to assume that it’s a lot more horrific than you probably intended it to be.

3) Inanimate Objects: Before I go any further, I should point out that this part of the article will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for the creepiest horror novel that I have ever read. This is a novel that sends a shiver down my spine whenever I think about it – even six years after I read it. I am, of course, talking about a book called “Slights” by Kaaron Warren. You have been warned.

Although this novel contains a lot of “rule”-based fridge horror (since a central part of the plot revolves around the concept that everyone is tortured by everyone they annoyed during their lifetime after they die), it also manages to turn seemingly “innocent” everyday objects into a source of abject horror.

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator (Stevie) inherits her mother’s old house after a car crash. Her father was a policeman who died several years before the events of the novel. Anyway, after a while, Stevie starts to discover that her father buried a lot of random objects in the garden. So, out of curiosity, she starts to dig them up.

Most of these objects aren’t scary in and of themselves, since they’re just random junk. But, later on, it is strongly hinted that Stevie’s father was a serial killer and that each one of these objects was something that belonged to each of his victims (that he kept as a memento).

Although you don’t really get to learn the details of every murder that her father committed, Stevie finds a lot of these random objects buried in the garden. So, your own imagination has to fill in the rest of the details.

So, using inanimate objects to symbolise or hint at horrific events can be an extremely powerful way of adding “fridge horror” to your story. This is particularly effective since we’re all surrounded by everyday objects – so your audience is likely to be reminded of your story when they look at random things around them.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Classic Tip For Improving Your Horror Story

2014 Artwork Horror Imagination sketch

Although this is an article about horror writing and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games for a bit. Don’t worry, there’s a point to all of this.

A few weeks ago, I was looking at random stuff on the internet when I stumbled across some surprisingly terrifying gameplay footage from a horror game called “Five Nights At Freddy’s” (Warning – Do not watch at night!).

Although there’s no blood or gruesome images in this game, even footage of someone else playing it was enough to put me in a slightly jumpy/frightened mood for the rest of the afternoon. In other words, even though it looks like an absolutely great (if somewhat limited) game, it’s one that I daren’t buy because I’d probably be too terrified to even play it once.

But, after a while, I asked myself “why am I still scared of this?” and I realised that I was still imagining the setting of the game and thinking about the few fragments of the game’s story that were shown in the footage. And, well, made me think about horror writing techniques.

You see, one of the classic pieces of advice for writing horror fiction is to leave the most disturbing parts of your story to the audience’s imagination.

But, why is this advice so useful ?

First of all, it isn’t about censorship. Yes, sixty or seventy years ago – you couldn’t make horror fiction too gory. But, after splatterpunk fiction became popular in the 1970s-90s, pretty much anything goes in horror fiction these days.

Although this is quite liberating for horror writers, it’s still important to leave at least some of the disturbing parts of your story to your readers’ imaginations.

This is because the imaginations of many horror fans are either just as twisted and disturbing as yours or, more likely, even more so. The fact is, if you actually show something disturbing happening in your story – then that’s as disturbing as it can be. It can’t be any more disturbing than your descriptions of it.

However, if you only hint at something disturbing in your story, then your audience’s imaginations will “fill in the gaps”. Chances are, they will probably come up with something far more horrific, terrifying and downright disturbing than anything you could have thought of.

Not only that, because they’re using their own imaginations – what they imagine will probably be tailored to their own fears.

In other words, your audience are better at scaring themselves than you are at scaring them. And, because all of the real horror is taking place in your audience’s imaginations, you’ll still be able to scare them even after they’ve finished reading your story. Just let that sink in for a moment – you can scare your audience even when they aren’t reading your story.

So, how do you do this?

Just because you leave something to your audience’s imagination doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t show anything. After all, if you show too little, then your audience won’t have much to think about and they’ll probably just ignore it.

What you need to do is to only actually show a few parts of something disturbing and leave a few tantalising clues about the rest of it. If you do this, then you’ll be giving your audience the building blocks for their own disturbing imaginings, but you won’t spell everything out for them.

For example, in the “Five Nights At Freddy’s” game footage that I mentioned earlier, you play as a night-shift security guard who has to watch over a themed pizza restaurant that is filled with “cute” animatronic robots. Although these robots are apparently dangerous at night, you never actually see them killing anyone (even if you lose the game).

In fact, the only way that you know that the robots are dangerous is because you get a phone call from the previous security guard where he describes in detail what the robots will probably do to you if they catch you.

Not only that, he also gives you a few tantalising clues about the history of the restaurant (eg: he briefly mentions that the robots’ programming was altered after “The bite of ’87”, which resulted in serious brain injuries to one of the patrons ). And that’s all.

Because you are only given a fairly vague idea about the backstory of the game, you have to think of the rest for yourself.

You have to think about what happened to all of the other security guards that have worked at the restaurant in the past, you have to think about exactly what happened during “the bite of ’87” and you have to think about the fact that this deadly and horrific restaurant is usually filled with families and small children during the day.

Strange as it may sound, this is about a hundred times more disturbing than if the game had included even a single drop of blood.

So, yes, as long as you leave a few clues about the disturbing parts of your story, it can often be a lot more frightening if you leave the rest of it to your audience’s imaginations.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Five Ways To Make Zombies Scarier

2014 Artwork Scarier Zombies article sketch

Well, since my old article about writing zombie fiction seems to be one of the most popular articles on this blog, I thought that I’d re-visit this subject today. After all, it’s been ages since I wrote a zombie-based article.

So, today, I thought that I’d look at how to make the zombies themseleves scarier. Because, let’s face it, zombies in and of themselves aren’t scary. They don’t exist in real life and, more often than not, they can end up just being vaguely creepy cannon fodder in action games (like the “Left 4 Dead” games, some of the modern “Resident Evil” games, the “House Of The Dead” games and, of course, the early levels of the good old “Doom” games).

So, how can we make zombies scary again? You’ve probably already seen most of these tricks in horror movies, horror stories, horror comics and/or horror games before, but I thought that I’d list five ways to make zombies creepy again.

So, let’s get started.

1) Recognisable zombies: This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but a sure-fire way to make the zombies in your story or comic creepy again is to show that at least one person that the main characters know (it’s usually a family member or a close friend) has been turned into a zombie.

This makes the zombies in your story creepier because it reinforces the fact that they were once human and it will also mean that your main characters face a moral conflict when it comes to deciding whether to fight or flee from the familiar zombie that they’re faced with.

The only drawback with this trick is that it has been done before quite often and it’s almost a cliche. So, it probably won’t really have the same level of shock value or emotional impact that it might have done a couple of decades ago.

Plus, if you’re making videogames, this trick probably won’t work that well. If you don’t believe me, then just look at Marvin (I think he was called Marvin) and the secret Brad Vickers zombie (play on normal difficulty or higher and don’t pick up anything until you reach the police station and you’ll find Brad in the tunnel/underpass outside the station) in “Resident Evil 2”.

2) Traces of Humanity: This technique is also something of a classic and, at the very least, it goes back to the classic Romero zombie movies of the 70s and 80s (but not the original “Night of The Living Dead”, if I remember rightly).

Basically, one technique for making zombies slightly creepier (or funnier, it can go either way) is to show that they have at least some vague memories of their human lives. Like with the previous technique, this can make your zombies scarier because it reminds the audience that the zombies used to be people and it turns them from generic “evil” monsters into actual characters, albeit rather minimalist ones.

For example, in Romero’s “Day of The Dead” there is an ex-military zombie who can just about remember how to salute and, in one brilliant scene, how to use a pistol too. But, apart from these traces of human behavior, he is pretty much a zombie like all the other zombies. Although this zombie is kind of used for dark comedy near the end of the film, he’s surprisingly creepy when you see him for the first time.

3) Animal-like behavior: This is pretty much the opposite of the previous two techniques. Basically, you show your zombies to be little more than animals who act entirely on instinct and have absolutely no traces of humanity left within them.

This will make your zombies creepier for the simple reason that it subtly reminds your audience that everyone (including them) is essentially an animal. Humanity might have far more intelligence, more developed linguistic abilities, a plethora of different cultures, better luck and far more technology than every other type of animal. But, without all of this, we’re no different from any other types of creatures that inhabit the earth. Pretty creepy, right?

Plus, another well-used way of using this technique is to show actual zombie animals in your stories. You’ll have to be slightly inventive here, since zombie dogs and zombie crows are something of a cliche (in videogames at least). The best example of a zombie animal (well, technically an insect) I’ve ever seen was a colony of zombie ants in Toby Venables’ excellent “Viking Dead” novel.

4) Fast zombies?: I think that this type of zombie was invented in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” film, but it might have appeared in something else before this. Basically, “fast zombies” are just ordinary (but often slightly more intelligent) zombies who have the ability to run.

When they first appeared, fast zombies revolutionised the zombie genre by making zombie movies, games and stories much more suspenseful and fast-paced, since the main characters couldn’t easily escape from the zombies by just walking away from them.

But, at the same time, they’ve become something of a cliche and they’ve lost most of their dramatic value thorugh sheer overuse in films, books and games. Not to mention that there are also many zombie fans (including myself) who prefer the old-school “slow” zombies to their faster modern counterparts.

5) Zombies in all but name: This is probably the best way to make zombies scary again. Don’t use “zombies” in your horror story – use a type of monster which is fairly similar to a zombie, but has enough differences from classic “zombies” that it will shock and surprise your audience.

For example, although I’ve never actually played any of the “Dead Space” games – I’ve seen an animated movie based on them called “Dead Space: Downfall(Warning: It’s very gruesome – like any good zombie movie should be! It’s also really cool that the studio itself put the film on Youtube too) and I’ve also read a novel based on the games too (“Dead Space: Martyr” By B. K. Evenson) – these games are basically zombie games in all but name.

However, instead of the zombies that we all know and love, the “Dead Space” games contain creatures called “necromorphs”. These are basically surreal David Cronenburg-esque undead mutants and they’re about three times scarier than traditional zombies are because they aren’t zombies. They’re something new, different and unexpected.

And, because they’re so unexpected and original, they’re a lot scarier than the traditional zombies that we all know and love.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

(Now, where did I put that ink ribbon?)