Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Advice on Writing Supernatural Suspense

The new draft I'm working on is a step away from what I've been doing for the past few months. I'm trying to write a supernatural suspense/horror, as scary as I can make it, but with a good ending. 
I started Sunday and since then have learned a number of thing about writing and the genre which I feel are worth sharing. 

The first thing is never start a Stephen King after 5pm at night. No matter what you do, the writing will suck you in and by the time you absolutely have to go to sleep, you will be in the middle of the scary bit. I started Pet Sematary at 6pm, got to the first major scary bit right before needing to go to bed last night, spent most of my day off today curled up reading, wept my eyes out in the middle sad bit, then had to go to the gym and then dinner.  I now have the dilemma: am reasonably near the end, so possibly could finish it tonight, but will be coming into the super scary bit. But I might not get a chance to read it tomorrow morning, and then I will be faced with the same problem tomorrow night! These are serious problems, people.

I do hope, though, that someone might face the same dilemma with my book, because it is a good problem to have. 

Another thing, more based on writing, came from doing some research into how horror stories usually start. I haven't read all that much, because I scare easily and have an overactive imagination. So the question came up: is it better to start with something creepy, or have it all seem perfectly normal and slowly show the cracks through which the horrors arise?
So, to do some research I pulled up the beginning of Stephen King's 'Carrie' (first full novel he wrote) and 'The Slab' by Michael R. Collings (I had heard an interview with him on Writing Excuses and it sounded interesting and related to what I wanted to write).

Let me just copy out the first pages of both for you to compare:

First, from 'The Slab'

Chapter One
The House Alone,
29 October 1991
A Time of Reckoning
It was a day made for death.
Brittle shards from the slanting October sunset stabbed at the quiet street. Brassy gold stained shabby lawns a murky, coppery brown. The dying light fingered naked limbs of rain-blackened elms and fruitless mulberries and peaches and skeletal jacarandas. It rested heavily on the dropping branches of the occasional valley oaks that had survived construction of the subdivision two years earlier. It tinted vibrant stucco walls not yet faded to earth-mud brown by interminable summers of suns, not yet hidden behind luxuriant passion vines or junipers or the creeping jasmine so popular in this part of Southern California.
In the odd, quirky light, the Charter Oaks subdivision became an enigma of striated shadows, dead black pinioned against muted October color in the late evening of a day that had been more cloud-ridden than otherwise.
Ace McCall squinted. The sun sliced through a bank of clouds low over the horizon, as if day were pleading for one last change at life before giving up and dying painfully into night. Blinking and cursing under his breath, McCall slapped the sun visor down.

And now Stephen King:

Part One: Blood Sport
News Item from the Westover (Me.) weekly Enterprise, August 19, 1966:
Rain of Stones Reported
It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th. The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25. Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta.
Mrs. White could not be reached for comment.

Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass.
What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic. 

Okay, which one actually gave you any desire to read on? 
Now I don't want to bash other authors, but looking at it purely as a piece of writing, if one of my students had given me Mr. Collings beginning, I would have taken a big fat red pen to it and possibly just cut the first few paragraphs all together or at least taken out most of the useless description. It was way too much. Did it make a fundamental difference to the story how the light hit the grass? Is there a reason we should care?
So, I took away from that exercise that beginnings are much better being short and sharp. The newspaper article doesn't make an awful lot of sense, but there is the definite feeling that it will, which makes it all okay. King also demonstrates the two key aspects of his story (which I haven't actually read yet, as the library didn't have a copy, so will have to find one) - the darkness in human nature, and what happens when that is met with telekinetic power. If the story had just been about one or the other, it wouldn't have been so interesting. Perhaps one element could have been introduced here and the other later, but I think it worked well as a hook to bring in both. 
Entranced with King's writing, I then went and got Pet Sematary yesterday afternoon from the library and have been enjoying greatly the story so far. Further, it has caused me to look at and totally refocus the story I'm working on.
The largest lesson I learned from it about writing horror is that it is not necessarily the supernatural element of the story which makes it scary. The scary part is how human nature deals and accommodates the supernatural. 
My story had focused around my main characters and a house (not haunted, more possessed which calls the eldest female of the family every generation to come and waste her life away watching out into the woods). But I've realised it would be a much more interesting story if I have my main characters, the possessed house, and the town that has been feeding and protecting it all these years, and how they justify their actions.  The small town where most know, or should know, that there is a woman trapped in the house, but that covers it up, and protects the house for some perceived good (I'm still working on this, but it is through the woman's sacrifice to the house that the rest of the town flourishes somehow). It will, of course, only work with pretty good writing, and I might not yet be up to that level, but I'll work out a draft and then see if it works enough that some day I might be able to make it into something. 

So those are my lessons so far:
- be careful when you read good horror, because you won't want to put it down and you will be too scared to sleep.
- don't over flourish beginnings (in any writing, not just horror), and don't be afraid to lay it out on the line: this is the situation, now follow me to find out how it works out.
- The human aspect is as important if not more important than the supernatural aspect. 

If anyone has any tips for me on writing this genre, feel free to let me know, I'm open to advice!


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