Being Too Stupid to Live and Other Horror Foibles

Haunted CastleCiao, SEers. Staci here. It’s October, which means I’m getting more than my fix of all things horror. I love the genre… the tingling sensation on my spine, the chills on the back of my neck, the racing pulse. I read and watch horror for the abject thrill of it all.

Unfortunately, because I’m an editor by trade, I have trouble turning off my inner critique-mode, and I watch and read this genre with a metaphorical red pen in my hand.

Film has a few tricks at its disposal that the written word can’t capitalize on. Writers can’t use a creepy soundtrack to build tension. They can’t use camera angles and dim lighting to mount suspense. (And yes, I realize some of that is POV, but the POV character can’t notice something he or she isn’t supposed to see… like the chainsaw-wielding psychopath standing in the shadows just outside the door.)

But there are certain things universal to all horror stories, whether film or page. There are also certain things that should always be avoided.

Things That Work

  • Isolate your characters from the rest of the world.
    People are far more likely to be frightened if they’re somewhere that’s cut-off from the rest of society. (AKA, from safety.) You know, being at Crystal Lake without camp-goers is more frightening than being at Daytona Beach for spring break.
  • Start with anxiety before fright.
    It’s a lot harder to buy into a scary plot when we’re thrust into it. Take time to let the uneasy feelings have a slow burn.

    • Make things be out of place, but then the hero forgets about it.
    • Use suspicious sounds that, when investigated, turn out to be innocent. Yet that sense of foreboding remains…
    • Split people off from the pack. It’s one thing for the group to be alone in a town or building. It’s another for a single person to be separated from the group.
  • If anxiety is a slow burn, embrace something more overt for instant impact.
    Everyone has fears. Whatever the main character’s phobia is—darkness, spiders, small spaces—introduce it after the anxiety has worked its magic. That will ramp up the fear factor instantaneously.
  • Decide who, if anyone, will live. And then write it that way.
    Sometimes it’s anyone’s guess who will make it to the end because all the characters are the same. (Stupid kids partying in a deserted camp by a lake.) Someone needs to be differentiated so readers have someone to root for.

Things That Don’t Work

  • A villain with no motivation.
    Even the criminally insane have a reason for what they do. A mindless monster killing everything that moves isn’t believable. Something made him that way. You know, like drowning in Crystal Lake because the teenagers were partying too hard to notice a floundering swimmer. Doesn’t matter how he came back to life. Doesn’t matter that he grew up after coming back from the dead. Doesn’t matter that it’s a different group of teens he’s after. If we know the motivation, we’ll believe.
  • A too-stupid-to-live character.
    You know… the blonde girl who runs up the stairs instead of out the door. Or the jock who goes outside—without a weapon—when he hears a strange noise. AFTER his friends have already started disappearing. These characters are too stupid to live, and they usually don’t. Make your characters’ actions fit the situation so readers don’t root for their demise.
  • Atmosphere
    We might not be able to see the darkness, the isolation. But, if written correctly, we can feel it. Experience it. Don’t write your characters into a white room of confusion. Exploit the setting for maximum tone and fright.

villainI don’t think it matters if you’re writing a real-world tale (think Jack the Ripper), a demonic fright-fest (think The Exorcist), or something unnatural that requires suspension of belief (think Friday the 13th). If you have proper tone, motivated villains, and logical heroes, you’ll have a good story on your hands. It’s only when you don’t set the scene, don’t make the villains the heroes of their stories, and don’t make the heroes’ actions make sense that the tale falls apart.

Then again, isn’t that true for all genres?

Okay, what do you think? What makes a good horror story? Or what makes you throw your hands up in frustration? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo

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26 thoughts on “Being Too Stupid to Live and Other Horror Foibles

  1. Pingback: Writing Links 11/6/17 – Where Genres Collide

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve seen a lot of movies (and TV shows) that make me scream at the TV because of something stupid one of the characters does. For me, the best horror movies are built on atmosphere and suspense. Keep the gore and give me the sheer terror of anticipation with a creepy (rather than gory) payoff. I still love many of the core elements of old-fashioned horror….old houses with hidden stairwells, creaking floorboards, the glimpse of a phantom or face in the window. I guess I like shivers better than outright screams 🙂

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  3. Great post, Staci! Good reminders of how important atmosphere is. I always go back to Poe and how he was able to create a sense of dread. And I had to laugh at the “too stupid to live”–how many scary movies (even not so scary ones) have the doomed teen doing something stupid? Sneak into the basement or the dark house and not turn on the lights–really? Who does that? You hear a noise, you turn on the lights. Duh. Now, if the lights don’t work, that’s a level of anxiety that feeds the fear factor.

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    • I’ve been watching the horror films, too, Michele. I watch both slasher and suspense/thriller films. Just watched Halloween 2 and Ouiji something-or-other this past weekend. At the end of the day, they all entertain me, but I do like the demon possession films better than the regular slasher movies.

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  4. Nope. That about covers it. The frustrating thing for the writer (or for this writer, anyway) is the struggle for originality. Every haunted house has been explored, every deep forest navigated, every mountain-full of trolls climbed. I shy away from the genre for just this reason, that if I can’t find a genuinely original angle I’d rather not travel.

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    • They say every story has already been told. It’s then just a matter of the details and the twists. You have a point about the over-done-ness of it all, but I choose to believe that writers are creative and will find a fresh angle again and again. I bet you’re that kind of writer. I sure hope I am!

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  5. Pingback: Being Too Stupid to Live  – The Militant Negro™

  6. Great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Staci. Horror is a fantastic genre, and I have so much respect for folks who write it well. It’s hard! You hit all the key points on what makes it work and what ruins it. The biggest issue that wrecks a horror story for me is when an author tries to shock and scare right out of the blocks with no building of tension, no character development, no establishing of an uneasy mood. And when that premature attempt to scare me involves high levels of gore… it’s instantly boring. I’m thinking of the opening chapter of “It” by Stephen King as a fantastic example of doing everything you said in the post quickly and effectively. That chapter ends with gore, but because he builds me up to it, it is genuinely terrifying rather than boring.

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  7. Fear often makes us fools, and common sense isn’t as common as we’d think. All great for horror writing! I love a great horror/thriller and all that suspense. You can’t beat when a book gives you goosebumps and makes you want all the lights on. What I don’t like so much is when the author paints a character into a corner and then can’t be bothered to write them out of it, which is entirely different to the too-stupid-to-live scenario. In the stupid decision arena, we know why they make that choice because the author has pulled us in to their fear, their panic. Thanks for this great article, Staci. I’ll be referring to this as I progress with my WIP. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Horror isn’t really my genre, but it does seem like tension is a necessary ingredient. Just get the reader on edge and anxious about what’s going to happen. Honestly, I’ve taken an on-the-fence position on the too stupid to live characters. Only because I’ve met people who would do such things. Seems humans aren’t the brightest when we’re scared.

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