I asked that question in one of my college courses some years ago, in front of a group of students all sitting in a room together. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would believe—how deeply uncomfortable that question made them, and I mean all of them. Most people either politely refused to answer or came up with some quick catch-all, like “loss of control” or “being injured” or something, frankly, safe.

Only one person had the guts to actually dig deep into that question and I could see the rest of the class turning on him as he spoke. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember it was pretty rough, sort of a form of mixed physical and psychological torture. But that’s not the point. The thing that worried me was that out of a dozen people, eleven wouldn’t go there. Or wouldn’t go there in public.

But this sort of thinking and the willingness and ability to communicate it to the public (your readers) is what makes writing horror, in particular, but fantasy and science fiction in their many forms as well, actually scary, and not just for the reader but for the author as well. This is what makes horror challenging to write and what turns some readers off it entirely. It’s also the sort of thing that has turned some viewers away from Game of Thrones or got between Harlan Ellison and the mainstream science fiction audience way back in the day.

Though there are certainly personal doors you won’t want to go through, and I respect that, if you can’t sit for a few minutes and consider this question, I’ll go so far as to ask if horror is really the genre for you.

Writing horror means you have to shove your imagination into the abyss. You have to turn your gaze to the darkest places inside you, in your imagination, in your nightmares, in your fears. Tapping into that won’t be easy.

Michael Marano, in his essay “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You” in the book On Writing Horror wrote:

Horror is more than what makes a pulse race. There are other sources of horror besides fear; some are far worse than fear, and far harder to write about. I spoke to a horror writer I admire about a scene he’d written that was so full of anguish and loss that it had made my wife cry. He told me that the scene had been so brutal for him to write, he had cried at his keyboard while writing it. It can be dangerous to capture in words what skulks in the Mirkwood of your head. The nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant was tortured by what he imagined, and died crazy… a year and a half after trying to slit his own throat.

I’ve written things that have given me nightmares, that I stopped writing and set aside, and picked up only when it seemed like I had to finish it to get it out of me. Writing fiction is hard, on a good day, and that’s true of any genre—and, let’s face it, that’s true of anything worth doing well—but horror in particular means looking into places no one else really wants to see in themselves.

Can you do that?


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. keithakenny says:

    So true. My writing class is filled with wannabe writers of horror who cannot face the horrors of the modern world. Instead they choose to write about fanged monsters, e.g., a monster with six-inch fangs is more of a horror than one with five-inch fangs and less drool.

    Asked once, I responded that humans were the great monsters. David’s betrayal of Uriah the Hittite, getting his loyal officer killed so he could keep screwing his wife Bathsheba, was pretty bad. A horror story might be told from David’s point of view: abuse of power, lust, impregnating the wife of a loyal friend, deceiving his friend then getting him killed to hide his sin. How does he live with this or explain it to Bathsheba.The horror would be magnified by switching to the victim’s POV: showing how much Uriah loved, trusted, and suffered for his king.

  2. Pingback: RULES ABOUT WRITING RULES FOR WRITERS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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