Writing Lesson: Horror

october-booksHey, I’ve got a thematic post and everything! My library’s ebook collection served up a list of horror stories for October, and I flipped through the list for one to read. (not any of the ones pictured). I noticed that it got a very low rating – one of the things that led me to choose that title was the thought, “Hey, what’s a two-star book really like?” – and this got me thinking both about reader expectations and about horror in particular.

Back when my first traditionally-published book came out and I was attempting to network at a major convention, I was chatting with someone about “dark fantasy,” which is how my publisher’s contract described Confidence Game. This fellow writer made some comment about how fantasy was being overrun by horror elements like werewolves and vampires, then gave me an arch look. I was confused. My book didn’t have a single bloodsucker or anything else horror-related, but that’s what the assumption was about the term “dark fantasy.”

Similarly, horror elements have been embraced by the mainstream, and you can find them all over major television shows, bestselling novels, and the like. But here’s the difference between the mainstream and horror – and between dark fantasy and horror, for that matter. In a more mainstream story, we expect the protagonist and/or narrator to win. Yes, they might have to fight off zombies and their world will be turned upside down, but in the end they live, they defeat the horror, and there’s a promise that their lives will get better. Horror doesn’t have that. In horror, the zombies are just as likely to win, if not more so. Horror is about exploring the darkest elements of human fears and human nature, and if they can’t be that dark if they’re conquerable.

I think this is the main reason the novella I read got such a low rating. Not only did its short length preclude the extended development we’re used to in a more mainstream setting, but the expectation that the narrator would defeat her demon wasn’t met. Nothing makes a reader crankier than failed expectations.

Something to keep in mind when you’re pulling in dark elements: What are you trying to achieve? Who do you want to win, and what’s the message that will give? What sort of expectations are you setting up and how are you fulfilling them? (And hope that your or your publisher’s description makes it clear what sort of story it is!)

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