Nonfiction By Aaron Polson
Every story must begin with a plot. Think of plot as a journey—and your horror story is bound for a magical destination called “catharsis.” Read a wide variety of horror tales. Start with Edgar Allan Poe—or even Charles Brockden Brown if you’re feeling ambitious. Read through some of the modern pulp magazines. Stephen King is okay. Tell yourself you can do better, and then copy the plot of one of your favorites, switching the vampire with a werewolf or vice versa. Every good horror story needs a monster. Serial killers make great zombies, but it’s a one-way switch.
You must decide on a setting for your story. Setting means when and where your story takes place. Night is always a good choice for horror because night is when things “go bump.” Things like werewolves and vampires and zombies. Serial killers sometimes have night vision goggles like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, so they rarely bump into anything.
You may have heard the tip “write what you know.” This means you should set the story in your house, especially if it is located in a rural area and/or next to an abandoned factory/warehouse. After all, if you are stuck, you can always look around for details to add to your story. Writers call these details “imagery.” If your house isn’t located near any abandoned buildings and/or not located in the country, you may want to choose one of the following spooky locations to set your story: a lake cabin, parking garage, dark house after the storm has knocked out the power, or perhaps an old farm. Old farms are scarier than new farms because there will be more items on an old farm into which to bump. Although either is likely to be in a rural area in the first place.
Finally, you will need characters. Every horror story has them because the vampire/werewolf/serial killer/zombie must have something to suck/bite/stab/eat. Here again, borrow from real life. Everyone wants to be famous, so feel free to use real names. Legal action can be avoided with the prudent blending of one person’s first name with another’s last. You may have heard the term “character development.” This occurs when an author makes a character seem like a real person by giving them baggage. Baggage can be many things: regret over stealing a candy bar from the store/anxiety about a math test/desire to lose a few extra pounds before prom. Don’t worry about developing your horror story characters personalities too much. Since most of the characters will die, it doesn’t matter if they are flat and uninteresting. The reader wants to see some blood, thus achieving “catharsis.” Catharsis occurs when a reader is happy some other person is bleeding and not her.
Catharsis is your horror-story destination.
Now that you have planned your tale, write. This is the easy part. Begin with a character and an action:
Bob walked into the house.
Here we have a character, Bob, an action, walked, and a setting, into the house. But imagine taking it further:
Bob stumbled into the dark, abandoned farmhouse.
The author has taken his story to an eleven by adding darkness and a secluded location. The verb “stumbled” also suggests a sense of urgency and/or drunkenness. Is Bob stumbling into the house to save someone after he has been shot in the leg or is he stumbling into the house to hide from something which may or may not know he is intoxicated? These are details best left to the reader’s imagination. The more unclear a horror story, the darker, and therefore more apt to have a reader wondering if the story is real. Confusion is scary. One thing is sure: Bob will be dead before you type the words “The End.” How you get from point A to point B is secondary to the fact that our hero will die a gruesome death. Remember: catharsis. You want the reader saying, “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t die a gruesome death like Bob.”
Never underestimate the importance of using multisyllabic vocabulary when describing your character’s death. Disembowel and eviscerate are personal favorites. Make sure to mention plenty of blood. The word “gore” is powerful as well because it implies chunks of flesh mixed with the blood. The more chunks, the more sure the catharsis. “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t die a gruesome death like Bob.” Think of synonyms for the color red so as not to browbeat your reader with the same word over and over and over again. Crimson, scarlet, burgundy, ruby, and cherry are all suitable substitutes. Nothing beats “dark crimson rivulets of scarlet gore cascaded from the gaping wound where Bob’s head had been viciously torn from his body by the werewolf’s claws”. Some variation is acceptable, but keep it scary. No one likes to bleed in dark crimson rivulets of scarlet gore, and they will feel sympathy for Bob. Now you have achieved catharsis. Whoot!
With a little practice and liberal application of werewolves/vampires/serial killers/zombies and blood/viscera/gore, you will be on your way to fame, fortune, and a folding table at the next comic book convention in the lobby of the local Holiday Inn.