Ciao, SEers. We’ve rounded the corner and are in the second half of the year. Even though we’re in the heat of summer, for me, as soon as we hit July, I feel fall coming (my favorite season of the year) and that means it’s time to start thinking about all things autumn. You’re probably already seeing pumpkins in the store. That makes me so happy!
It means it’s time to start thinking horror. Okay, I admit it. I’m pretty much always thinking horror whether Halloween is near or not.
Today, I want to talk about the three aspects of successful horror as defined by Orson Scott Card.
The thing that really elevates horror stories is layering and building suspense. The three layers we want to work with in horror stories are dread, terror, and horror.
“to anticipate with great apprehension”
This is the best one. Easily my favorite. It’s the one you should spend the most time on. Chronologically, it will happen first in your story and last the longest.
Dread is the waiting that happens when you know something horrible is coming but you don’t know what, you don’t know when, and you don’t know why. It’s impossible to prepare for because you don’t know what form it will take, what time it will appear, or what its purpose is. It’s a niggling feeling you can’t identify but you know something’s wrong. Something’s out of place. Maybe someone’s late arriving without contacting you. Maybe something’s out of place when no one could have moved it. Maybe there’s a temperature anomaly inside your home. The feelings start small and are inexplicable. But they’re palpable and unshakable.
“a state of intense or overwhelming fear”
Chronologically, this is the second stage. What was a mystery in the “dread” stage becomes known in this stage. And it’s frightening. The mist coalesces into a vampire. The shadow in the hallway turns out to be an intruder. The deal that was too good to be true really was and the devil came to collect. Terror is a powerful emotion, stronger than dread. But it’s also faster. It lasts only as long as it takes the character to react to his situation. Or to die from it. (Consequently, it takes the reader roughly the same amount of time.)
“an intense feeling of shock or disgust”
On the timeline, horror is the last feeling experienced. And it’s the least powerful of the three. Once the terror has passed, the survivors (and the readers) are left with the aftermath. There’s almost a desensitization to the remainder. The shock numbs you, and if you continue to immerse yourself in the horror, you stop reacting to it. You almost have to as a matter of preservation. The first time you see a zombie eat a brain, you’re horrified. The seventieth time, you just run or hide or do whatever you have to do to survive. If the zombie apocalypse is ever over, you might unpack the horror and live in therapy, but until then, you compartmentalize it. The shock registers, then you move on.
So, those are the three levels of horror in chronological order.
- Pre-event: Dread (long lead-up)
- During-event: Terror (strongest and fastest)
- Post-event: Horror (least powerful, but it can linger)
Do you use all three in your horror writing? Can you see all three in horror stories? Let’s talk about it.