things that matter

What Thriller Writers Can Learn From Horror

What Thriller Writers Can Learn From Horror

So since the title of this is “What can thriller writers learn from the horror genre?” I am going to focus on a thing that is REQUIRED in horror, for it to actually BE horror, but which is glossed over (or missing entirely) from far too many thrillers.

 

Now before I get to the meat of it, I want to say clearly: I’m NOT saying that thrillers aren’t as good as horror, or vice-versa. I’m NOT saying that all thrillers miss some imaginary mark. I’m NOT denigrating any author or any book. Just gotta front that because people tend to read things like “here’s something horror HAS to nail and which thrillers have a bit more leeway with” as “here’s something horror does right and thrillers don’t and also thriller readers suck and thriller writers are morons” etc. etc.

 

I have nothing but respect for both the thriller and horror tropes, and I run back and forth between the two in my own writing with gusto and a real appreciation for both.

 

All right. Caveating and hemming-and-hawing over. On to the meat:

 

There are a number of things horror HAS to do in order to work, to function AS horror. Of them, the one that is most useful when writing thrillers is this simple fact: horror has to matter.

 

Horror, at its core, is something that frightens us (the readers). It does this by putting us in someone’s shoes, and giving us as much (or as little) information as they have. Then, firmly planted in the path of the book (or story or movie or whatever) protag, the reader screams when the terror reveals itself. The terror is real in that moment, not just for the characters in the story, but for the audience.

 

Whenever you go to a horror movie, you’re sure to see a scene where the hero is backing away. The shot is tight, showing her face, the expression of fear, the knowledge that IT is out there, that IT wants her blood. She backs up a step. Another step… turns…

 

AND IT IS RIGHT BEHIND HER!

 

I often hear people talking about this “cheap trick” – as in, “Like we don’t know that there’s gonna be something behind her. What do those Hollywood guys think we are, morons?”

 

The people saying that miss the point. That moment isn’t about a “trick” – no one at the production company hinges their career on the fact that “this time we’ll get ’em with the ol’ ‘Closeup and then she turns and BLAMMO!’ trick, fellas!” No, what they’re doing with that tight shot, that closeup of her face, is PUTTING YOU RIGHT THERE WITH HER. The audience has no choice but to walk in the hero’s path, taking the same steps she takes, and suffering the same terror she suffers.

 

In horror – or at least the BEST horror – the audience must fear. For that to work, the audience must stand in the shoes of a character who fears as well. The character’s terror becomes ours (the audience’s) and voila! Horror!

 

Now here’s the fun part: fear is intensely personal. You get a bit woozy at the sight of blood, don’t you? Not me. I laugh at your weak stomach. Laugh, I say!

 

But you probably don’t freak out when you get in the ocean past your kneecaps. And I do. (Cue your laughter now, because revenge is a dish best served cold… and as a part of the ITW roundtable discussion.)

 

In sum, what terrifies you does NOT terrify me (necessarily). That’s WHY people who write horror novels or direct horror movies take such pains to keep everything in dark places, in extreme closeups: to hobble the audience; to shackle their experiences to those of the story’s characters.

 

Then, thus shackled, when the character runs breathlessly through the airplane-hangar-sized tool shed full of rusty pitchforks and idling chainsaws and dismembered body parts, so do we. When the character trips and falls over an unlikely root, we tumble to the ground and hurt ourselves as well. When the character screams, our own shrieks follow close behind.

 

The horror is real, because it matters to us. It matters to us because it matters to THEM, the characters. Without the twin steps of a) association by the audience with the characters, and b) something that is terrible in a specific and unique way TO those characters, horror cannot be achieved. The movie or book is a bust.

 

And that’s something that thrillers are more likely to miss: a uniquely personal tie between what is happening and the characters in the story. Thinking about the typical thriller series illustrates this problem: in the first book, the detective has to find the Big Bad, because the detective lost his father in a tragic combine accident, and now the police have come to him, stumped, because they can’t figure out who the newest serial killer is. The killer has been dubbed The Combiner by the press, because he chops people up in a combine and leaves them on the lawn of the various towns where the killings occur.

 

The detective resists taking the case. But he will. Because there’s that question: is this how his dad REALLY died? WAS his father’s death an accident… or was it early practice by a blossoming serial killer?

 

He gets deeper and deeper, the hunt moves faster and faster. NO! The killer didn’t murder his father. The killer IS HIS FATHER! (cue trumpets)

 

Fast-forward to book seventeen. The cops are stumped. A killer the press has dubbed The Retainer – so named because he wires his victims’ jaws shut and makes them watch old reruns of Everwood until their souls just give out – is on the loose. The detective resists the case… but he’ll come around. Because as was revealed in a fascinating flashback during the prologue, the detective’s favorite niece once had a best friend whose dog peed on a hydrant outside the local dentist’s office, and the dentist threw a retainer at the dog to get rid of it. Trauma for all.

 

So yeah… this time it’s personal.

 

Obviously, I’m saying a lot of the above tongue-in-cheek. But there’s some truth to it. I mean, you’ve cycled through all the protagonist’s most deep-seated fears in the first book. You caught the man who killed his father… and who WAS HIS FATHER! Book two: the rapist who came after his sister. Book three: the trilogy moment where you find out The Combiner WASN’T HIS FATHER AFTER ALL, and his REAL father is being held captive in a grain silo slowly being flooded as a result of the tornado that just hit, so our hero only has two hours to solve the mystery of where he is and who put him there! Book four: I dunno, something about his sister again? Book five: we’re definitely moving from family to friends at this point. Book eight: I think that one’s got something to do with the local grocer.

 

My hat is off to those thriller writers who manage to keep wringing painful memories out of their heroes, book after book after book, and so craft a story that MATTERS to the character. But it doesn’t always happen. Far too often, in fact, thrillers are thrilling only as a mental exercise of sorts: there’s nothing that matters to the detective, or the doctor, or the Everyman at the heart of the story. The thriller becomes more of a crossword puzzle: something to be solved, and the victory to be savored. But the suspense comes more in the form of “Can he/she (the hero) figure this out?” rather than in the nail-biting-knowledge that the stakes are simply victory on the one hand, and destruction on the other.

 

Horror MUST have those kinds of stakes. No one comes out of a horror movie raving about “the movie of the year where if the hero didn’t get away he was faced with the very real possibility of BEING SET BACK A DECADE IN HIS CAREER!” No. That is a FAILED horror movie, and it has failed from the start.

 

I’m not saying that a thriller has to have blood and guts, or even a life on the line to work. But the best thrillers DO remember the lesson that horror imparts: the story has to matter. It has to matter – deeply, profoundly, irrevocably matter – to the characters. It can’t be an interesting mental exercise, or even a question that will bring shame or unhappiness if not answered. It must be MORE.

 

A good, competent, fun thriller will take us on a roller coaster ride. A heart-pumping, blood-pounding, arms-in-the-air-and-screams-on-our-lips adventure that has us smiling as we get off because of the sheer exuberant madness of the experience.

 

A GREAT thriller takes us on that same roller coaster. And reminds us – subtly sometimes, overtly others – that somewhere, the roller coaster is on fire. That somewhere, the rivets are loosening. That if we ride the roller coaster just right, then we will pump our fists and shout for joy that WE WERE THERE… but that if we fail to do it, destruction will follow.

 

Thrillers must thrill. Of course. But there are different kinds of thrills. One is the the thrills-by-proxy we experience when someone tells us of an extreme event, an unusual occurrence. It could be anything from winning the lottery to the time they almost fell down the stairs right in front of the Girl/Boy Of Their Dreams.

 

Another kind of thrill comes when we witness someone escape a situation that could have ended in death or madness or damnation (the extremes of body, soul, and mind).

 

And the third kind of thrill – the best kind, and the ONLY kind acceptable in a good horror story – is the one where we witness that same situation… and forget we are merely the audience. We fall into the story, and become the characters, and the doom that looms is our own. Then, at the end, we feel our wet palms and totter unsteadily to the shelf, where we return our book. We pause. We breathe. We smile.

 

And we pull the next title in the series from the shelf. What has happened in the story happened to us. We survived. And a thrill like that is addictive. A thrill like THAT – one that, like all good horror, is based in things that MATTER to us – is one we will pay dearly and eagerly to enjoy.

 

This article originally appeared as part of an online roundtable discussion for the International Thriller Writers website.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice
Why I Love Horror

Why I Love Horror

“Why do you love horror?”

 

Better yet: “Why do you write horror?”

 

This last is a question that I hear often – even more often than most horror writers, probably, given that I’m a guy who doesn’t look like he’s planning on how to make a wallet out of your face-skin, have no terrifying scars or eyes that have “Will Kill For Food” written across them, and (most of all) that I am a deeply religious person who teaches Sunday School in between writing about monsters.

 

Yet despite these incontrovertible facts, I’ve not only read and watch horror, I actually make my living writing stories that make people cringe and shudder.

 

So… that question makes sense. Why do I write – and read, and watch, and just plain love – horror?

 

My answer: I write horror because horror is the genre of morality, and the language of hope.

 

When was the last time you read an involved discussion of good vs. evil in a piece of literary fiction? How often do you find a discussion of the possibility of something infinitely greater than ourselves, and of our relationship to such a thing, in a science fiction epic? Not just a strawman discussion, either, but an honest-to-goodness throw-down over questions that have plagued us as a species since the first moments we learned to speak: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What, if anything, happens after?

 

Horror is uniquely positioned to ask these questions. And not just that, but to discuss them on a deep level that both assumes their importance and (just as critical!) states that those huge, radically important questions actually have answers.

 

In other words, horror matters. Which is also why it is so polarizing, because things that matter… well, people care about them. That means they get angry if you disagree about the importance of those things, or think you are caring about the wrong things (or even about the right things in a wrong way). Things that matter are things close to the heart. Things close to the heart are, by nature, the ones that can hurt us.

 

And the things that hurt us… well, of course, they’re the things we most fear. And, more often than not, they’re also the things we most love.

 

There’s the dichotomy of horror: it is a genre that finds its footings in blood and fear – and some horror positively wallows in those things – but which, ultimately, is a kind of storytelling that defines goodness for the reader.* Horror tells us stories of morality: of the dangers of walking dark paths; and, ultimately, it reminds us that we live in a world of hope.

 

Some will read this and scoff. “But I read [insert name of book/story/movie/whatever here], and it was just blood, blood, blood!” Or, “What about every movie that came out of the 1980s? Just one kill after another, with the occasional pause for teens to get it on and show some skin!” Or even, “How can you claim that something like Hereditary (one of the darkest movie scripts ever written) is hopeful?”

 

But here’s the thing: horror, in order to actually be horror, must cause fear in the reader. It has to evoke a sense that what we are seeing or reading or hearing is deeply, unsettlingly wrong. But “wrong” (and its far darker offspring, “horrifying”) does not exist in a vacuum. “Wrong” is something that cannot be understood or even noticed unless we first understand – at least a little – that thing called “right.”

 

Horror stories, by nature, exist to show us the opposite of the way “things should be,” and so implies that there is a way things should be. A place where killers do not come for the innocent, where people can tuck their children in bed and be secure in the knowledge that no ghost or demon will come to steal them away (or, even worse, possess them).

 

There is a rightness in the universe. There is a thing we call “good,” and competent horror stories show us that good by demonstrating what happens in its absence.

 

Competent horror tears out the hearts of its readers. It throws those hearts in a ditch, the readers’ silent screams echoing in the authors’ ears as they bury their bloody treasures deep in the earth, one shovelful at a time. Violence, loss, fear… each adds more dirt to the grave, each further cuts the hearts off from the rest of the “right” universe. Yes, competent horror does that.

 

Competent horror buries your heart. It kicks you and knocks you down. Then it leaves you gasping, dying, alone. The story is a moral one, for – again – it must be moral to matter. A sense of what is “right” must exist for the “wrong” to matter at all, let alone for it to terrify us. But competent horror only exists to assert this fact: there is what is “right,” and there is also that thing called “wrong.” Then, its basic lesson taught, it leaves.

 

But great horror does more. It cuts out the reader’s heart (oft-times more cruelly and painfully than simply “competent” horror), and buries it deep (oft-times even deeper than “the good stuff” does). But – and here is the difference between competence and greatness – great horror adds one more step:

 

Great horror remains to see what will happen next. For the great horror stories know that the burial is not the end. For in horror, the burial does not signal the end of the story. After all, one of horror’s great lessons is that the monster, once vanquished and buried deep, will eventually rise again to terrorize and maim.

 

But if the monster does this… then why not us?

 

Great horror stories tear us apart and bury our still-beating hearts. And then it waits, knowing that given time, given encouragement, given (dare I say it?) a bit of grace… we can rise again. Our hearts will not only beat, but beat all the stronger because of what they have been through.

 

A decent horror story destroys us. A great one then helps us through the painful process of resurrection, and leave us with souls stronger than they were before.

 

Horror talks about ghosts and goblins, madmen and monsters, freaks and fiends. But what it actually does is this: it gives us the language to understand what we are seeing when we witness evil, it gives us the tools we need to confront that evil, and it reminds us that in the end – if we are smart enough, brave enough, true enough, good enough – we will triumph.

 

There are stories where evil appears to win. But great horror shows us that the battle goes on. In my own books, the “good guy” doesn’t necessarily make it to the final page. In fact, some important stories demand an unhappy ending. My novel Twisted, for example, is a ghost story… but it is also a story about child abuse, and the horrifying effects it has on the evil and innocent alike. Such stories cannot finish with “they all lived happily ever after.” Evil always leaves scars in its wake, and to ignore that fact is to do a disservice to those of us who have lived through darkness, and learned to survive and even thrive in spite of those scars. Some stories must end “badly,” if only so we may know how to avoid becoming the monsters they have described.

 

Besides, even in stories where evil appears to triumph, the reality is anything but. Because the moment after “the end” happens, the reader proves those two words to be a lie. The reader closes the book. The reader turns off the Kindle. The story is done, but the reader… the reader does not end. For the reader has survived. The reader will continue and, hopefully, continue forward stronger.

 

All horror shows us the darkness we are capable of. Great horror reminds us of the miraculous creatures we already are.

 

And that is why I write – and read, and will always love – horror.

* Or viewer, or whatever. I’m a screenwriter and author, so I deal with people reading, listening, and watching, but for ease of use purposes I’m just going to refer to “readers” from here on in. After all, you’re reading this right now, so it seems apropos.

 

This article first appeared on the website of RA for All.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice