Brevity is the soul of horror

Brevity is the soul of wit. There’s a reason why everyone says this. It’s because it’s, duh, true. Good comedy works best when it’s brief. While some comedians do quite well with longer jokes, the best ones are always the quickest.

I poured spot remover on my dog, now he’s gone.

-Seven Wright

I often find that humor and horror have a lot in common. They both tend to have a bad reputation for catering to the lowest common denominator in our society. Critics hate them, considering them vulgar and not worth their time.

Obviously, I think anyone who looks down on an art genre as a whole is lost in their own elitism and wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them in the ass. (Sorry, is my vulgarity showing?)

But that’s not the debate I want to get into here. What I’m trying to say is that I believe that the horror genre, like the comedy genre, works best when it’s brief. Social media is flooded with these eerie little horror stories that I’ve become quite addicted to. Here’s one of my favorites.

A young girl is playing in her bedroom when she hears her mother call to her from the kitchen, so she runs downstairs to meet her mother.

As she’s running through the hallway, the door to the cupboard under the stairs opens, and a hand reaches out and pulls her in. It’s her mother. She whispers to her child, “Don’t go into the kitchen. I heard it too.”
-Not mine, but I couldn’t find anywhere who wrote it first. So here’s a link to the Creepypasta page I found it on originally. If anyone knows who wrote this, please tell me.
Here’s a link to a whole post about them from Thought Catalog. You can also read through Creepy Pasta to your heart’s content, or search #twitterhorrorstories. But the love of the brief horror story has existed for a long time before the internet. Think of the urban legend, the campfire stories. R.L Stein is the master of horror stories for kids, and not one of his books are over 100 pages.

You don’t need to build as much of the world

When you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you’ve got to build that world up. You’ve got to create a world that feels different from the one we walk around in every day, and it needs to feel real. That requires your characters to eat things, look around at their surroundings and experience the ways their world is different than ours.

Most good horror is set in the real world. Unless you’re reading period horror, it’s set in current time. Except for some flashbacks and origin stories, at least.

There are pros and cons to setting your world too solidly in the present time. It will age and can make your book laughable later.

Or not. Stepford Wives is a classic horror, and it’s definitely a creation of its time.

The benefit of setting your horror story in real-world surroundings is simple; it makes it more believable. If I write a horror story about a man who is murdered after going to a Chinese restaurant, I bet you don’t order take out tonight. If I write about a young boy who’s possessed by a demon on his television and kills his whole family, it feels like something that might happen. Maybe not during the day in the sun, but after dark everything seems more believable.

So, since you can assume that you don’t have to really explain too much about your characters surroundings, other than to set the mood, you can save a whole lot of time.

Too much fluff will kill the mood

There’s something behind you. Can you feel it? It’s there, just past your line of vision, in that dead space your eyes can’t reach. You know, that place you can’t see unless you really turn around. And by the time you do that, the thing might have moved? That’s assuming you can even do it at all. I mean some people can’t really turn around that well.

Can you tell when that stopped being creepy? Right about the time I started way over explaining things!

You don’t need to explain as much in a horror story. In fact aside from the description of the big bad evil, I’d be as sparing on detail as possible while still making sense. For one thing, too many details will kill the mood. For another, it’s not a terrible thing for the reader of a horror story to be not fully aware of what’s going on.

Don’t forget, the scariest thing is always what we don’t know.

Suspense can only be sustained for so long

Think of it like tightening a string. You can only tighten it so long until it breaks.

This is the same for your story. It will only hold up to so much tension. You can only do so many awful things to one character. You can break them, sure. Strip them down to nothing, chase them alone through a nightmare scenario. Force them to do something horrific just to survive. Get them naked, covered in blood and guts, some of theirs and some of others.

It’s a horrific fact that you probably don’t have to do that much to your character to get them to that point.

It’s a less horrible fact that there’s only so much terror and gore one reader probably wants. There’s a fine line between terror and murder porn. It’s one that gets thicker and thicker for me as I get older. When I was a kid I loved gore. The more horrific the better. These days, I don’t have as much of a stomach for such things. Maybe it’s something about having kids, I don’t know. But I just don’t love it as much anymore, and most adults do go through that change.

Maybe it’s something about living in a world where a man can take somewhere around 26 automatic and semi-automatic guns into a hotel room and murder roughly 60 strangers in cold blood for no discernible reason. So I keep the blood flow and guts to a minimum.

As one last thought, on the genre of horror in general, let me leave you with a quote from Joss Whedon. I think it applies to all writing, but horror most.

Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough. But then, for the love of God, tell a joke.


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