The Beginner’s Guide to Horror Redux (October Special #2)

Horror isn’t a beginner’s genre in any way, shape or form. While not quite as difficult as Romance or Tragedy, making a good Horror requires a mastery of craft and an understanding of people in general, because to truly scare someone, you need to understand the types of things the human mind is frightened by, and then capitalize on those basics in more and more creative and unfamiliar ways. So this time, I’m going to do something a little different, because Horror is the most flexible and ever-changing genre of them all. Rather than teaching specific rules and approaches (for the most part), I will explain the logic behind core aspects of Horror, and you’ll need to figure out how to apply them yourself, because being too derivative is often a death sentence for Horror. Now, let’s begin.

Horror differs from other genres in that it lives and dies not by the story, but by the tone. In a Horror, while a good plot is certainly a major positive and a distinct element shared by the great works (minus a few exceptions), the key element is the tone. If you get the tone wrong, everything sinks. Every masterpiece of Horror, be it the classics like Poe and Lovecraft or the modern ones like Urobuchi and Ryukishi, follows the same core tone principle, at least to some extent. Horror is dark and moody, which is a very difficult atmosphere to do correctly. If you do it too little, your story can become cheesy. If you do it too much, your story can become annoying. Getting the tone correctly requires mastery of shot composition, editing, character and environment design, pacing, descriptives, and musical/audio design (all where applicable). As I said, true Horror isn’t something just anyone can do. However, if you’re skilled enough to create such a tone, then you can choose between several different ways to create it. The first is to create an oppressive atmosphere of hopelessness and misery, which goes well with psychological affairs like Silent Hill. It’s best to avoid this style, unless your story has themes in the vein of hopelessness. This is because it’s extremely easy to overdo this type of atmosphere and just get annoying. It has the potential of deeply unsettling the audience, but it’s incredibly difficult to get right, because monotone gets boring. You need to vary the tone, even within the sphere of bleak and miserable. This is very difficult, so it would be wise to keep this risk in mind when working. The other, equally effective method is to include sections of levity, which is to say moments of calm happiness, especially early on. The reason for this is to contrast with horrific events to occur later, as that sense of contrast can strongly unnerve the audience if executed properly. (Note, I sometimes call this the easier method, but that’s only by comparison.) With this method, there is no better example than my most constant citation: Higurashi. Every arc starts out light and energetic, with the early segments devoted to the games payed by the main characters. Then the rest of the arc is a steady descent into horrific events that contrast so heavily with the earlier scenes that it’s outright shocking. And when the next arc starts with the light and fluffy bits again, it’s every bit as jarring. You don’t have to make the tone changes as heavy as those were, but they’re a perfect example of how to use this approach.

Tied into the last point is pacing, which is the rate at which events happen and the general speed of the story. Horror, in general, has a very slow pace, with moments of high tension typically being the slowest, because that allows suspense to build. I suppose it’s possible to make a fast paced horror, but I’ve never seen one work, because that sacrifices the tense atmosphere that horror usually relies on. Maybe someone will eventually find a way to make fast-paced Horror work, but I’ve heard of no such thing so far, and I would generally advise against trying to be the first in this regard, because it’s a massive additional challenge on the creator’s part, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be the one to figure it out. I know I told you earlier that to make a good Horror, you need to do new things, but even with that said, I must relay the classic gambler’s aphorism: “there’s some bets you just don’t take”. In my view, this is undoubtedly one of them, but who knows, maybe I’m mistaken. Regardless, back to the slower pacing. There is no steadfast rule for pacing, it really is on a case by case basis. And, like the rest of a good Horror, pacing is a delicate balance. Too fast, and you can jeopardize the atmosphere and potentially sacrifice development. Too slow, and it gets boring quickly. As a quick side note, never start a story with vast expanses of nothing happening. Many bad Horror stories do this, and it results in them being terribly boring. More on this in a moment. Getting this pace correct requires a distinct understanding of this topic as a whole, and isn’t something I can teach any rules for. As a result, we must move on.

Before we move on, I’d like to touch on something really fast. I’ve mentioned suspense several times, and explained how it permits even slower paced scenes, so I would like to include one of the core rules of the genre, which is the core technique of creating suspense. To paraphrase the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, suspense works like this: “Suppose people are sitting at a table, talking, when suddenly, a bomb goes off from under the table. The audience is surprised, but before that, they’ve seen a completely ordinary scene, of no special consequence, However, if you tell them that there’s a bomb under the table, and it’ll explode in 5 minutes, the previously innocuous scene becomes tense and exciting, because of the anticipation of the promised event.” (Note that I heavily paraphrased the original quote so that it’s easier to understand, Hitchcock was a very verbose man.) This sort of rule applies not just to situations where the audience is forewarned of the danger and/or outcome, but to ones of reasonable intuition as well. So, in a situation where the audience more or less knows the outcome, for instance, character X is about to be murdered, then the same principle of suspense applies to the buildup to said outcome. Crafting a sequence like this properly requires great care and attention to detail, and therefore must be treated as such. Now, moving on.

Another important aspect of Horror is the setting, as each type of setting has a different sort of effect on the atmosphere. Whether it’s a small town with a dark secret like Innsmouth or Silent Hill, a lonely house in the middle of nowhere like the House of Usher, or any number of other setting types, the overall feel of the story changes, sometimes significantly. In general, a lot of Horror tends to take place in less populated areas, because a sense pf isolation can, and tends to, make an audience nervous. People tend to feel far more nervous when the possibility of “strength in numbers” isn’t on the table. Plus, it minimizes outside influences, making the main characters being unable to get help or stop themselves from dying much easier to justify. That’s not to say Horror can’t take place  in heavily populated areas, several do, but you ought to re-format it in order to work better in that context. For example (purely example), a monster that no number of humans can fight, such as Sadako from The Ring. That’s just how I personally do it, it’s not concrete advice, merely a small extension of my style. At any rate, the setting is integral to Horror, far more so than most other genres. Take great care in designing it, your entire story has to mesh seamlessly with it.

Alright, we’ve got bits on the tone, pacing, and setting, let’s talk about classic story elements, starting with the characters. In a sense, Horror has 2 eras, let’s call them Paleo-Horror (PH) and Neo-Horror (NH). In PH, characters didn’t matter all that much and it was far more about the atmosphere. That style persists to this day, primarily in short stories, but it was the norm in the old era of Horror, most notably with Edgar Allan Poe. NH, conversely, tends to focus on the plot and characters more while still maintaining classic Horror sensibilities. As close as I can tell, this approach started in some 19th century novels, most notably Frankenstein and Dracula. Characters like Victor Frankenstein and Abraham Van Helsing are far more developed than what was standard at the time, and the style their respective novels cultivated is more popular nowadays, with novels like Higurashi and Saya No Uta utilizing it very well. If you’re writing a short story, take the PH approach,. Set up your basics, get the plot going, finish quickly. You can and should keep things simple, you’re on a time limit after all. If you’re writing a novel, it makes much more sense to take the NH approach, as it ultimately results in a much stronger narrative. Just because you’re writing in a particular genre is no excuse for a sloppy narrative, unless it’s particularly short like a one-shot story. As such, NH is still bound to the core rules of narrative, such as the importance pf characters, which needs to be kept in mind. As such, NH tends to have an approach with moments of levity, as a way to strongly establish characters before the nightmarish events begin. This isn’t necessary, but frequently done. The other way is to strengthen the characters through adversity, giving them development through how they handle the situation. Having a strong character cast is especially useful in Horror, because an emotionally invested audience is more engaged, and therefore more likely to be affected by the events that go on in the story.

Much like character writing, the plots of Horror tend to vary wildly between the two eras. PH tends to have minimalist plots, where the focus is directly on the events unfolding and with little work done on backstory and development. NH tends to go much more like a traditional story, with explanations for most things, backstory, development, and plenty of the typical elements. A Horror story is still a story, so treating it like a story creates a deeper and more engaging narrative, which can only benefit the story overall. Again, a lot of the usual rules apply, no info dumps, minimize contrivances, keep the plot moving, etc. So, you essentially need to balance a core narrative with the additional atmospheric demands of Horror. See what I mean when I say Horror is a master’s genre? If you want to write a good NH, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Let’s talk about genre blending. Truth be told, a Horror story that does just Horror and nothing else is a bit of a rarity nowadays. Even legendary Horror authors from back in the day like Poe would often touch on genre blending in their stories. Horror is a somewhat versatile genre, and can be combined fluidly with many others. Easily the most common is Mystery. Because Horror is often based on fear of the unknown, it meshes well with mystery elements, which are from the genre of the unknown. Note how I said “mystery elements”, and that’s because proper mysteries (which is to say, mysteries which follow Knox’s Ten Commandments and Van Dine’s Twenty Rules) often don’t leave room for the points of Horror to manifest. As such, a common middle ground is a Horror/Mystery hybrid that follows some rules of both but discounts others. If you do this, then deciding which rules are which is your job. Next up is Tragedy. Horror has latched on to Tragedy from the beginning, as both seem like natural extensions of each other. Horrifying events happening to characters the audience cares about often create tragic overtones, and it doesn’t take much to turn a sad occurrence into a scary one, just a little exaggeration in the right places. As a result, many famous Horror authors have mixed Tragedy into their stories, from Poe to Shelley, for additional story possibilities. Unlike Mystery, Tragedy can mesh with Horror fully without sacrificing the core sensibilities of either genre, The catch is that Tragedy is even harder to write than Horror, so proceed with caution. Next is a particularly bizarre combination: the Horror Comedy. On the surface, this seems like a mix that just can’t work, and honestly, I’m inclined to agree.  That’s not to say I hate Horror Comedies, I’m a huge fan of Tucker & Dale vs Evil, but I wouldn’t call them Horror, they’re comedies that take the piss out of Horror. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but talking about them would fit better in the Beginner’s Guide to Comedy (assuming I ever do such a thing). Those three are the big genres to mix, but Horror has many sub-genres. Allow me to explain some of them.

First is Ghosts. Ghosts are debatably the most popular kind of antagonist in Horror, the reason for which is completely lost on me. I mean, I understand why it’s done, ghosts represent death, which people are inherent;y uncomfortable around, and they can be given any number of supernatural abilities which make them outmatch any humans they deal with. Plus, half this country believes in ghosts, I know a few such people myself. But still, ghosts are such a cliché that it takes truly inspired works like The Ring to really be memorable. For the most part, most ghost stories suffer from the same stupid clichés (especially those in the wake of Paranormal Activity) that make them just dull and annoying rather than scary. Next is Sci-Fi Horror, with such notable examples as Alien in its ranks. This is a lot like Tragedy/Horror in that it requires thorough understanding of both genres before it can be properly executed. Alien was lucky enough to have HR Giger making the sets and effects, it’s unlikely that you’ll have such a privilege. Next up is a classic: Slashers. I’ll touch on these more later in the month, but generally they’re led by the antagonist themselves, in that the slasher tends to be the most developed character and gets the most screen time. Most of the time, the protagonists are either stereotypes or just flat in general due to lack of screen time. I don’t appreciate this at all, but it seems to be the industry standard. Next up is good old-fashioned Zombies. If ghosts are the most popular antagonist in Horror, then zombies are the up and coming challenger trying to claim that crown for themselves. In other words, zombies are fucking everywhere. Just like ghosts, I’m not strictly sure why. I somewhat understand them, they’re a sort of murderous horde that virtually everyone is incapable of standing up to, but once again, they’re cliché as all bleeding hell, and therefore more boring than they are scary. Whether they’re the slow Romero sort of zombies or the faster type to gain some popularity in recent years, they’re all over the god damn place, and it’s unlikely that anything new with them can be done. Next up is easily the most implicitly disturbing: Psychological. Now, this disambiguation is honestly somewhat vague. Psychological Horror is essentially Horror created in such a way as to unnerve the audience by messing with their minds, often through tricks like hallucinations, unreliable narrators, mind games, and other tools of madness. Notable examples include Silent Hill, Higurashi, and others of the like. What makes Psychological Horror so endlessly scary is that it directly plays off the audience’s mind, and is therefore nearly infinite in potential. There is arguably nothing more terrifying to a human than the creeping threat of madness, and therefore Psychological Horror has the most potential of any sub-genre. However, just like every good part of Horror, this requires mastery of craft and an understanding of madness and how it affects the human consciousness, (this last one is exclusive to Psychological Horror, and not Horror in general) and therefore is, of course, incredibly difficult. If you’re so dense as to have ignored this and everything I’ve tried to teach you so far, including the very first sentence, then I shall spell it out: HORROR IS REALLY FUCKING HARD, AND TRYING TO WRITE IT IS A COLOSSAL CHALLENGE. The reason I constantly bring this up is because many hack writers and other “creative” staff assume that it’s easy, and no matter how unjustly popular their creations become, they’ll never be make anything good because they don’t put any effort into their work, so you just get dull and cliché stories regurgitated ad infinitum. And I’m sure you all know what I’m going to talk about next: JUMP SCARES. An unbelievable number of critics, pundits, analysts, and others of the like have denounced jump scares as lazy and cheap attempts at shocking an audience. In general… they have a point. Jump scares are often used in horribly cheap and lazy ways, which gives them the reputation. However, there are examples of fantastic jump scares in virtually every icon of horror with a visual element, by it the Pyramid Heads in Silent Hill 2, the “THAT’S A LIE!” moment from Higurashi, or half the shit in The Conjuring. As such, it can only be concluded that jump scares aren’t inherently bad, they’re just used wrong. And the sad part? It fucking works. No matter how trashy, Horror movies always seem to make absurd profits, gaining mass popularity through cheap jump scares. And they’re not good, but they’re still popular, because I guess they’re still popular because the general public is oblivious and indifferent to what makes really good horror, so they’re content to just sit around with a line of jump scares and never expect anything better. And I think I know why. Because true Horror is inherently niche. Mass audiences don’t like to be scared. A jump scare without all the atmospheric work isn’t scary, it’s startling. When people are startled, but not necessarily scared, you’ll often see them laugh afterwards, because that little adrenaline rush is pleasing to them. But when you really scare them, they don’t necessarily like it that much, because they’re on edge, frightened, and uncomfortable. Now on the surface, something where audiences are more comfortable seems like a good thing, but Horror is the genre of fear, fear isn’t comfortable, in fact it’s the exact opposite. So it seems to be another case of trying to market a niche product to the mainstream and fucking it up in the process. Such is mass appeal, I guess.

Those are the basics, and if you’re the sort of maniac who wants the challenge of writing a Horror story, then a few of these may show up in your own work. At the very least, keep these in mind, they should help you avoid the stupid mistakes that most hacks make. But then again, if you’re skilled enough to make Horror properly, odds are you aren’t the type to read my writing anyway. Which means I spent 2 weeks writing all this up for nothing. Joy.

The Beginner’s Guide to Romance (February Special #1)

This is a very difficult piece to write. Those of you who read this probably do so because you figure I can teach you the proper way to write a Romance story, but I can’t really do that. Romance (along with its darker sibling Tragedy, which I’ll get to later) is by far the hardest genre to write in, without exception. You may doubt that at first, if only because of how many genres there really are. But out of all those dozens of writing genres, Romance stands alone as the hardest of them all. What’s paradoxical about this is that at its core, Romance is a genre built on a few simple core tenets, none of which seem that hard to get right. At least, in theory. In practice, things tend to get a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult very very quickly, and only get more and more of a nightmare the harder you look.

At its core, Romance leans on the same element as every other kind of story ever made: character writing. However, Romance depends on its characters more than any other genre, except maybe Tragedy. See, the central purpose of a typical Romance is that the two main characters are trying to work through their interpersonal problems. Nobody cares about the personal issues of characters that don’t matter to them. As such, before you attempt to write a Romance story, you need to be absolutely certain that you’re capable of writing truly compelling and likable characters. Once I get around to my Beginner’s Guide to Character Development, I’ll go further into detail about how to do this. But making the leads likable is only half the battle. Just as important is to ensure that their personalities can work off of each other in a way that entertains the audience. There are two ways to do this. The first way is to make the two leads extremely similar, and build the relationship by emphasizing that similarity. This is kind of rare, but it does get used to great effect sometimes. A good way to do this is make both the leads play Straight Man to the unusual antics of other characters, and thereby bond by being the only two sane people in the room. The other way is to make the two leads extremely different, and have their personalities complement each other by making up for the other’s flaws. For instance, have a smart character who dislikes other people paired with a more bright (if less clever) character who convinces them to deal with people more. Or someone utterly devoted to their work to the point of being self-destructive paired with someone who holds literally no devotion to the idea of a job and helps them relax, which was used to excellent effect in I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying, a show I’ll get back to later. Anyway, you can choose whichever of these works better for your story, and so long as you reinforce them well through the classic rules of narrative building, you should be fine. But of course, the two leads aren’t the only major characters in a story, and you need to write the interactions with other characters well in order to succeed. A lot of different friendly interactions will do just fine, unless they involve a harem. I cannot stress this enough: there can be no harems of any kind. Ever. A harem is literally the worst genre ever and you should never touch it, because I doubt even Ryukishi07 can make it good, which should serve as the most damning condemnation for anyone who reads my stuff. So now that you’ve avoided that, what do you do with your supporting cast? There are a few things you can do that could be interesting. For instance, give one of them a friend who wants to match them up with the other and ends up making the two of them meet. Or a friend who helps one of them overcome the inhibitions they might have towards the relationship and convince them to get closer to their partner. Or maybe one of them could see the relationship as a bad thing and try to convince one of the leads why it isn’t good for them (particularly in relationships that are developed to be rather rocky and have problems that eventually have to be resolved). You could even have the supporting characters enter their own relationships and dedicate subplots to that. Now, not every story needs an antagonist, and Romance stands out as a genre where such a character is often unnecessary. However, I can think of one type who would actually be interesting. Though you typically get antagonists in the form of disapproving family members (which can be done very well if developed properly, like Eva Ushiromiya) or obnoxious suitors/arranged spouses (like Billy Zane in Titanic). What’s much more interesting is a spin on the latter, where you make them a genuinely compelling character who could feasibly be good for whichever lead they’re involved with just as much as the other lead can. An example of this done almost perfectly is Edgar from the Wuthering Heights. Though he ends up being a bit too snobbish and classist, he does prove a good match with Catherine, arguably more than Heathcliff does. If they’d made him a bit more likable, enough that the reader actually sees him as a viable match for Catherine, then it would be an interesting conflict to watch as she’s forced to choose between two different but equally good lovers. To anyone thinking of adding an antagonist, this is the way you should do it, because it’s a great way for conflict to arise. Of course, this doesn’t entirely apply to Romantic subplots in larger stories, where you can have external antagonists who want to tear the main lovers apart for other reasons, but I think that should speak for itself. Make that conflict largely unrelated to the main characters falling in love. Aside from that, characterization follows the same general rules as it does in other genres.

Surprisingly, narrative in Romance stories is a lot more complicated than one would think. Making a story that’s solely about the relationship between the leads forming, while certainly not impossible, often runs the risk of becoming stale, overstretching its premise, or otherwise falling apart as it progresses, especially if the series continues on for a long time. So if you want your premise to be so simple, you had better be dead certain that everything else is completely on point. The characters need to be absolutely remarkable to hold people’s investment even harder than they would need to otherwise. The pacing needs to be laid out absolutely perfectly, because it’s the only way to stop people from getting bored with how little is really happening in the story. A huge victim of this is Kimi Ni Todoke Season 2, which eliminates all other dilemmas from the first season aside from the two leads eventually hooking up, and then it utterly destroys its pacing by introducing a bunch of terrible filler conflicts that all center around getting in the way of the main characters getting into a relationship. It ends up being really boring and it wrecks any good will that the vastly superior first season may have earned. So learn from its mistake, and make sure you keep your pacing extremely smooth and progressing at good speed. If you have a story with focus beyond the romance plot, then you can get away with pacing the romance slower because the audience can focus on other things that keep something happening at all times.

Aside from that, I haven’t got all that much to talk about. Romance is not a demanding genre from a technical perspective, and it doesn’t take very much to be good. Being truly great does take some genius, with the opening scene of Clannad remaining one of my favorite scenes ever because of how brilliantly it portrays one lead bringing meaning into the life of the other. So if you think you have a genius inspiration for a scene that really develops the emotional connection of the main characters, then go for it.

Finally, I’ll explain some really awful tropes that any self-respecting writer should avoid. First off, I must reiterate: NO HAREMS OF ANY KIND. EVER. It always leads to awful stories, it inevitably kills at least one of the main characters (figuratively), and it just results in an inferior final story. Next, never use the “Love at First Sight” trope. I delved into this a little bit more in my Romeo and Juliet piece, but that trope is absolute garbage. It reclassifies all the romantic connection in the story as just being sexual attraction, and thereby kills the possibility of emotional investment from an audience member. Next, when referring to a romance subplot within a larger narrative, never have one of the villains kidnap one of the main characters. It’s overused and boring by now. Next, try and avoid “unusual” romances as much as possible, including but not limited to incest, those involving paranormal entities, polyamory, or things of that nature (note- this does NOT extend to homosexuality. You can do as much of that as you want). They require so much additional work to even hope to be competent that more often than not, it’s just not worth it. Now obviously, exceptions to the rule can exist, but they’re so rare that it’s statistically impossible for anyone reading this guide to ever make one of them.

And one last thing to cap it off. Should you desire to play the author, you cannot be a cynic about it. You cannot forget the heart, you cannot just play along the lines of other, more famous stories. Make the story unique to you, put yourself to the page. If you have a personal story to use as a basis, then by all means do it, changing small parts of it if you feel they’re awkward or would make for a poorer narrative. But you will always get the best story if it comes from the heart, and Romance is the epitome of that. So if you want to try your hand at the hardest genre, you need to put all efforts into it. You need to come at it smartly, using your head to the fullest extent of its capability, yet you must also write from the heart, thereby using both in tandem. You need to do the best job possible, and is you manage to pull it off, you can have something beautiful. But be wary, for it’s inordinately easy to fail at, and those failures can easily cause a disaster. The margin of error is close to zero, and it’s a risk you must think about heavily before taking. If you take that gamble, then use everything here to maximize your chances of success. The most I can offer other than that is a wish for good luck. The more good stories, the better, right?

The Beginner’s Guide to Horror (October Special #2)

While Horror may not be the most difficult genre to write in, it’s still in the top 5. Horror is extremely difficult because inducing fear takes different methods for different people. For some, all that’s necessary is darkness and jump scares. Others need unnerving atmosphere, excellent technical elements, and disturbing concepts. The latter is particularly difficult, so that’s what I’ll try to teach.

First off, the atmosphere. Good Horror lives and dies by its atmosphere, so getting it right is absolutely essential. First off, the visual tone for the likes of movies and illustrated books. Darkness is extensively common in Horror media, for an obvious reason: Darkness contains the unknown, and anything could be lurking in it. However, there’s a very fine line between eerie shadows that can obscure a monster and just filling the frame with so much darkness that the audience can’t tell what is going on. In many third-rate Horror productions, the entire ordeal will be so dark that it’s almost impossible to follow the events that are occurring. This is often used to disguise cheap effects or otherwise hide less desirable details, but it’s a distinct misfire. An example of how to mask cheap effects properly can be found in the original Alien. Due to Alien releasing in the 1970’s, special effects were of distinctly low quality, and the alien was portrayed by a man in a rubber suit. To mask that, Ridley Scott simply lessened the screen time of the alien, and rarely if ever showed the entirety of it. Mostly the audience would see an arm, a tail, maybe the head. Indeed, arguably the most iconic scene in Alien is when Dallas is in the air ducts, and gets ambushed by the Xenomorph. He turns, we get an image of the head and one arm, and then cuts. I cannot stress this enough: If you aren’t confident in your effects, mask them by showing the monster less, and not by filling the frame with darkness. Doing the latter does nothing but annoy the audience. This all ties into a much bigger problem with modern Horror: overexposure to the object meant to cause fear. Familiarity breeds contempt, so overexposing an audience to your monster will do nothing but annoy them.

Next off, the premise. Horror has hundreds of different potential premises available, divided into over a dozen sub-genres. There’s supernatural, which is further divided into several categories including ghosts, zombies, demons, vampires, or other supernatural creatures, as well as animals, sadists, cults, insane people, aliens, and many more besides. Of these, there are a few genres that work better with certain formulas than others. For instance, Horror focused around aliens or supernatural entities have a very common formula: show hints of monster early on, make allusions to how dangerous it is, notable reveal later in production. For Horror focused around insane people, it’s better to show the villain more, but keep their insanity subtle for a while. Subtlety is key to Horror, and a lack of it WILL kill a horror story immediately. When focusing on a lunatic as a premise, the motive is also necessary. Sure, a story can just say a character was born with their condition and continue from there, but it works much better if the character is given a backstory (and a tragic and believable one at that) that adequately explains the character’s motivations and psyche. In the realm of Horror, nothing does this better than Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni. Higurashi is a very interesting case, in that I refuse to label it as a “real” Horror, if only because that misses part of the point. I’ll get around to explaining that in detail later, but the necessary information for this point is that absolutely everyone in Higurashi has some kind of unfortunate backstory that explains the motivation behind every action they take, and gives full clarification as to their outlook on life, as well as what the others mean to them. In this case, I’ll be focusing on the backstories of Shion Sonozaki and **** ******, whose backstories result in multiple murders and the unfortunate events of the series. The story of Shion is revealed in the fifth story arc, known as “Eye Opening”. It’s revealed that Shion was shunned by her family for her whole life due to her being the younger twin. After escaping her school, she hides out by disguising herself as her sister. It’s there that she meets Satoshi, who we already know disappeared shortly after this event occurs. It then spends a while developing the relationship between them, and proceeds to throw a wrench into the mix. Due to multiple reasons, Satoshi ***** his ****, which sets the police to suspect him. To cover his “alibi”, Shion is forced to reveal her true identity, which results in her family catching her. She’s forced to tear her ********** out in order to take responsibility for the events of the previous few weeks. Shortly after, Satoshi disappears, which becomes the catalyst of the killing spree that follows. A year later, and Shion’s memories of Satoshi are re-ignited by a seemingly minor incident, and thus the bloodbath begins. I’m being purposefully vague for the purpose of not giving away the emotional gut punches that occur during Eye Opening. As for ****, her backstory isn’t revealed until the very last book, but it’s perfectly hard enough to justify her role as the arch-villain of the series. When she was a young child, her parents died in a train accident (with her father coughing blood into her face), thus sending her to an institution. This institution is perhaps the cruelest orphanage in any form of media, and she goes through hell on earth there for a long time. Then she gets in contact with ****** ******, who takes her away from all that. She then learns of his dream to prove the existence of ***** *********, which gets scorned by the entire scientific community. After he dies, she dedicates her entire life to fulfilling that dream by any means necessary. Through both these backstories, their motivations for their horrific deeds are explained, and honestly they’re at least sympathetic, if not relatable. Obviously this is just an example, but it’s a paragon of good storytelling that applies perfectly to Horror stories. Think of Horror like Mystery: “Whodunnit?” and “Howdunnit?” aren’t enough. There must be a “Whydunnit?”, or the story will never live up to its full potential.

Next is the design of the villain. When the perpetrator is a human, there’s a list of annoying clichés that any aspiring writer ought to avoid. First off, chainsaws. Chainsaws were honestly never scary, and they have a few characteristics that make them inherently less threatening than other melee weapons, such as the amount of noise they generate. Their rampant overuse has just made them boring. Next, masks. Unless your story is also a mystery, there’s no reason for a perpetrator to wear a mask. If it’s not essential to your story, remove it. Finally, I must stress the value of making a villain understandable at the very least. If you can do that, your villain will be more memorable, and thus your story more appealing to an audience. Horror is a very niche market, so you have higher standards to meet if you want to impress them. Using clichés heavy-handedly is the single fastest way to alienate that audience.

Even though they tend to die, protagonists are essential in Horror, just like every other genre. The fastest way a Horror story kills itself is when it makes the protagonist an unfathomable idiot. If that happens, the audience loses sympathy for the protagonist, and thus loses investment in the story as a whole. Keep your protagonist’s intelligence level at, or perhaps slightly above, that of the average viewer.

Finally, I’ll talk about the scares themselves. In the modern day, the hack Horror writer relies on the same tired formula: everything goes quiet, then suddenly loud noise and jump scare. This formula is so incredibly overdone that using it is absolutely dreadful by now. Horror, by its very nature, is slow in pace. Early on, you need to establish your characters and setting, then hint at the events that are about to happen. After that, begin hinting as to something being unusual, and include evidence of whatever the object meant to cause fear is. Once you’re done with that, slow it down. Feed in new evidence slowly, and ensure that they’re distinctly connected in order to maintain audience intrigue. That’s not to say you can’t include a jump scare every once in a while, but it’s essential to include proper buildup. Instead of draining all sound, keep the sound playing the whole time. Don’t use a loud sound cue unless the situation specifically demands it. And finally, don’t put in false scares. All that does is weaken the element of fear for the audience. Last of all is the visuals and sound design. Aesthetic in a Horror production is very difficult, as it’s a balance between realistic and unrealistic. Beauty doesn’t create fear. Ugliness creates fear. However, don’t think that means you can safely operate on a micro-budget. It’s a remarkably difficult task to create something ugly enough to be alien to a viewer, yet recognizable enough that they understand what it is. The eldritch faces of When They Cry come to mind in particular, where the character is still recognizable as a human, but their expression has become horrifyingly distorted in ways a normal human face simply doesn’t. With that out of the way, we end on the sound design. Horror requires skilled actors every bit as much as other genres, as they need to sell the notion of their reactions to the situation being genuine. Use of high-profile actors isn’t a particularly worthwhile idea, since they’re so recognizable that the audience doesn’t take them as seriously. Rather, find an actor who really fits the role, and can brilliantly pull off everything expected of them. Horror often involves extremely demanding roles, such as screaming in pain while making a realistic face, crying and pleading in terror, or otherwise showing distinct fear involving the situation. Music is a challenging one as well. Too often, a Horror production uses nothing but high strings and slams on piano keys. Like much of the genre, the music should be slower paced and quieter. Good instrument choices are the deeper strings, the pipe organ, drums, and the deeper notes on a piano.

When writing a Horror story in print, a major decision revolves around the style of narration. Who gets to be the narrator, the culprit, a victim, or a third party? Each has its own set of rules and drawbacks. If the narrator is the culprit, the issue of how they narrate the story comes into question. Are they confessing to authorities, are they writing it in a journal, are they just recounting it for reason x? In these instances, the culprit needs to know the victims, because that’s how the victims themselves will get any character development. If the victim narrates, the issue of whether or not they survive dictates what frame the story takes. So, if they end up dying, the story makes no sense in past-tense. If the narrator is a third party, the obvious choice is to make it an investigator. In this instance, the story needs to be constructed as though the clues were discovered by a professional investigator. This latter is extremely rare, for the reason that there’s no room for third parties in a traditional Horror story.

There you have it, the basic elements of a Horror story. This one is a bit less extensive than the other s, but it should be enough to avoid the most terrible mistakes made by Horror creators.