Writing and Shit – part 30 – The horror! The horror!

Let’s spend a moment examining what story-time means for one particular genre: horror.

(Some generalisations follow. Not all horror novels may conform, I realise.)

The story-time of a horror novel depends upon a specific form of suspense, namely dread.

Horror novels are dread-ful. But we can subdivide them in terms of microgenres, in terms of how that dread is managed by the reader.

Violence is a solvent to dread, because once violence has begun something definite is happening. Dread is fear of what might, in future, happen. What might happen if I stay in this house overnight? What if I go down this long, dark staircase into this cold, wet cellar? What if I investigate this sound, this high, child-like whimpering? What if I open this door?

(Much of horror is opening doors of one sort or another.)

Readers who wish to enter the story-time of horror have a tolerance of, and take pleasure in, shorter or longer periods of dread.

It’s possible to imagine a horror novel that is entirely about a gradual build of dread from the first page to the last.

Even so, if most horror novels depend upon an escalation of dread, from start to finish, it is still a gradual build that contains within it climaxes that terminate in scares or false scares. Each climax is likely to be at a higher level of dread than that which immediately came before it.

Different micro-genres of horror would include many climaxes or few. The rhythm of the climaxes and scares needs to be unpredictable enough to surprise the reader. They want to take their own fear seriously.

If it turns out (at the end of the novel) that the whimpering was a speaker playing a recording of whimpering and the person staying in the house is merely being pranked, there would be a huge let down. (Unless they are being pranked by a psychopath, as prelude to torturing and killing them, because there’s still a chapter to go.)

Horror depends on something genuinely horrifying.

This requires the person in the story to be surrounded by appropriate stuff in an appropriate space (acoustically as well – sound is very important).


Now, I would like to take away the stuff of the horror genre entirely. It may be that the reader loves these props – they love old haunted houses in and of themselves. But let’s try to recreate this particular genre’s story-time from scratch – by reinstalling the location, props, sightlines, etc.

We now have our main person and we have an entirely empty empty space around them.








Picture it – completely blank. Like that bit in The Matrix, before the weapons zoom into place, and Neo and Trinity tool up.


How do we populate this space with buildings, objects, stuff, so as to give the reader of that isolated person’s story the kind of story-time they want?

The person needs, first of all, to be isolated enough not to be able to end the dreadful situation by going into the next room or calling for help.

The essential horror situation, I’d suggest, requires broken sight-lines. If all walls were transparent, the person could see what they were dreading. Dread is usually of the unseen, the unknown.

So we need a place with walls that are opaque. We need our person to be able to move around within the space, and discover things they couldn’t see from where they were before. In other words, we need doors.

So far we have an isolated place with walls and doors.

Here are some more questions: Would our person feel more or less dread if the place was warm or cold, clean or dirty, full of soft surfaces or full of hard edges, new or old, without reputation or well known for being terrible, somewhere they are meant to be or somewhere they are not meant to be?

Where have we ended up in our pursuit of maximally dreadful story-time? I think it is somewhere cold, dirty, full of hard edges, old, well known for being terrible and somewhere they are not meant to be. Sound familiar?

This is not because all horror stories have to take place in creepy old houses or deserted warehouses. It’s because a certain kind of story-time calls into being certain kinds of props.


Finally, for today, returning to the empty white space and the idea of sight-lines – and in contrast to the horror genre. What are the sight-lines of a fantasy epic?

Well, they vary. But I would say that the writer wishing his reader to enter the story-time of epic would need to create very good sight-lines – sight-lines from which distant locations to be reached could be spotted from far off, from which vast armies could be seen massing.

Would the epic fantasy reader be able to enter the story-time they desired if the people in the story were within a horror story location? If, to travel even a short distance, they had to open door after door? No, it wouldn’t be possible. Within a house, you cannot have the sentence The friends journeyed on for several days.

Literary aside: This is, in fact, the very effect of Mark Z. Danielewski’s great novel The House of Leaves. This includes epic fantasy space within a haunted house. But within the epic part, the doors are absent.

For epic fantasy story-time, we need a general absence of walls and doors. (Yes, our people and elves and dwarves will find shelter, but more often they’ll be exposed to wide open spaces.) We also need good sight-lines. They’ll need some high places to look out from.


Try to imagine the Lord of the Rings taking place within a world that was entirely flat – on a vast empty plain.

Again, that space would mean there was no possibility of epic fantasy story-time being entered.

Exercise: Perform the same build, from an empty space, for a completely different genre.

See you soon.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 30 – The horror! The horror!

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 29 – What kind of writer are you? | tobylitt

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