The best way to learn new and interesting writing skills is to read and write a variety of genres. The more you expose yourself to the wider and more varied your range of knowledge will be. Think about it those who read or write thrillers will learn different lessons to those who read or write romance. Each genre has it’s own specific strengths and weaknesses and if you limit yourself to a single genre (either reading or writing) then you’ll build a certain set of strengths but never overcome the weaknesses. But by reading different genres and styles you may find tips and tricks to overcome the weaknesses inherent in the genre your writing at that time.
Horror is my own main focus (although I dabble all over the place to widen my own skillset), this means the bulk of my strengths lie in horror. Today I am going to share with you some of the potential skills you could develop by giving horror writing a try.
The setting is very important in a good horror story, it helps build the atmosphere. Most horror writers will, over time, develop the skills needed to craft a setting that supports a story and its characters, to the point where the setting is almost a character in and of itself.
Some horror writers will invest so much in their setting that it will represent more than the sum of its parts. For example, a house that is becoming increasingly more haunted may actually be a representation of the main character’s descent into madness. Aspects of the setting may, in turn, represent aspects of a characters past, psyche, emotional state, anything the writer needs it to be.
There are certain writers who build a mythos around their settings, by having the same setting appear in multiple books, Stephen King does this with more than one of his settings, one of the more famous ones being Derry.
Disempowerment is something I have talked about before, usually in relation to horror in videogames, but it is equally important for reading horror as well. Settings can be a great tool to disempower your character, either by physically isolating them or by being oppressive or presenting physical hardships.
Completely made up aka no real-world equivalent, settings can be useful also, anyone who is aware of H.P. Lovecraft will be aware that his writing superpower was fear of the unknown. By crafting a completely alien setting fear of the unknown will be easier to establish. Or by crafting a familiar setting but inserting unusual elements can heighten the sense of the unknown. This can be similar to the uncanny valley, where something looks so human that it creeps you out, a setting familiar with unusual elements can create a very unsettling atmosphere.
Read horror to learn how to craft impressive settings.
Less is more
One of the first things I noticed about horror is that my favourited stories, the most effective films and the best games are the ones where you either don’t see the ‘horror’ or the horror isn’t over-explained. As I said above the unknown can be terrifying. But in my personal opinion, your own imagination is perhaps the scariest thing, your reader’s imagination will scare them more than you ever could.
Take for example a monster film, the build-up is top notch, a slow burn that raises the stakes revealing more and more damage caused by the something that no one can identify. Your heart is pounding, your blood pumping hard then all of a sudden the camera moves and you see …… a guy in a rubber suit, or some poor CGI, even some amazing CGI its never going to be as scary as your own imagination. You can’t help but feel disappointed, anti-climatic. Think of the majority of monster films where you see the monster, most of them will be a tad lame, then think of a monster film where you don’t see the monster, the first Cloverfield film for instance or the first paranormal activity. Or the first Final Destination film, these kids were effectively pursued by a force of nature, you couldn’t see it, touch it or fight it and they were scary.
The minute you can see, touch and comprehend the monster it starts to lose its edge and the same is true for nearly all horror elements.
This teaches us that less is more, the less you show or tell your audience (within reason) the better, the more blanks you leave the more their own imagination will kick in, or it won’t and they will be left with the unknown, a terrifying prospect.
Sustain your Tension
Building and holding onto tension is bloody hard. It’s really, really hard. Understanding when to let the tension drop a bit so you can crank it right back up a few minutes later to better effect is a difficult thing to learn. One of the best ways to learn is to read horror stories, not all of them are good but that is good in a way, sometimes its easier to learn when you can see what doesn’t work.
One of the simplest (ha ha ha) ways to build tension is to employ the tactic mentioned above, less is more, the longer your reader, watcher etc. are kept in the dark the easier it will be for you to build the tension.
But that being said building tension is only part of the process, you need to know when to let the tension drop, constant tension is exhausting for you, your reader and your characters, there need to be times of low tension, even if it’s only for a few moments.
These moments of low tension give you a great opportunity to build your characters, you want your readers to fall in love with your characters this way when something horrible happens to them it will affect your readers more.
Reading, watching and playing horror can teach you a lot about building tension, how to do it through physical action/threat, atmosphere, emotional danger etc. It can teach you what works in what situation, and more importantly what doesn’t.
So to wrap it all up in a nice little bow, whether you write fantasy, romance or drama horror can teach you a few tricks that can benefit your writing. Horror can help you build your settings, craft scares, and get your tension game down to a T.
Reading other genres can really help you build your game, but also reading other types of writing, I write novels and short stories primarily, but I found reading screenplays to be helpful. Expand your knowledge, your experience and your writing can only benefit.