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No Bones About It: How to Write
Part III: What Today's Readers Don't Want
by David Taylor
An important part of writing successfully in any genre is
learning what not to do. Unfortunately, the path to
publication is not straight and narrow, nor without blind
alleys and sloughs of despair. To avoid the pitfalls one
must discover not only what a good horror story is, but
also what one isn't.
Just as these students were unanimous in what they wanted
most from a horror story (fast-paced suspense), they were
equally adamant about what ruins their fun: anything that
smacks of a "literary" treatment and slows down
the pace. Eighty-one percent made comments like:
"Can't stand long, drawn-out stories which
overkill with background and details about characters and
about lifemakes for tiresome reading."
"I don't like stories that go into so much
detail about everything that I lose the plot and my head
spins by the time I'm through reading."
"Detail upon detail, description upon
description, bore upon bore!"
One student opined simply: "Literary
On the surface, such comments seem to contradict the need
for finely-drawn characters and setting. But these
students are actually displaying a solid understanding of
this genre and its uniqueness:
As readers of horror, they expect to be entertained by a
suspenseful tale of dark fantasy. Their comments imply
that while theme, realistic characters and settings are
important props in the entertainment, those elements
must be kept secondary.
Too much of a good thing blurs the boundary between the
horror story (a literature of fear and the fantastic) and
the mainstream literary story (a literature of character
and theme) which they've come to associate with school.
As one student begged when we were about to discuss
Stephen King for the first time, "Please don't tell
me he's good literature; I like him too much."
Sadly, "lit-ra-ture" for many young readers has
become associated solely with the stories of mainstream
realism chosen by authority figures for textbooks. For
years, students have had to analyze, take tests on and
regurgitate teachers' interpretations of these
storiesa useless and demeaning experience at best.
For these students, horrorwith its emphasis on
plot, suspense and extremesgives back to literature
what schools have managed to strip away: its pleasure,
A lot of the fun in this genre comes from the important
game that goes on between writer and reader, wherein the
writer tries to stay always one step ahead, doling out
just enough information to keep the story intriguing and
coherent yet the reader still guessing and in suspense.
The horror writer must walk a tightrope, balancing
between predictability and obscurity, telling neither too
much nor too little.
Failure to avoid those extremes was the pitfall most
frequently cited by these students. Eighty-eight
percent complained about predictability, saying again
and again: "I don't like authors who give away too
much too soon."
Their comments here also reaffirm the importance of the
ending in this genre. Several students wrote:
"An obvious ending ruins the whole
One student made an impassioned plea to writers:
"To all horror authors: please don't give
away the ending before I get there. It makes me want my
These students also grew impatient with authors who
withheld too much information and left readers baffled
about what really happened. Sixty-nine percent objected
to "stories where everything is a confused jumble of
events." Their typical reaction was not one that
bodes well for repeat sales: "Too much confusion in
a story and I just give up."
Some of these comments arose from our reading of several
experimental stories in which authors challenged the
reader by violating one or more traditional rules of
narrative and attempting to let the form of the story
mirror a character's confused mental state or be a
comment on the illusory nature of reality.
The fact that only the English majors in the class
enjoyed those stories further underscores the
expectations of the majority: A story that is
entertaining does not make unusual, "literary"
demands on its readers. Experimentation may be important
for an artist's and a genre's growth, but it won't
necessarily do well in the bookstore. The student who
wrote, "A horror story that loses me is boring. If I
can't understand it, I can't very well enjoy it,"
was also serving notice about his tolerance for literary
These students were traditional in another way. A
majority flatly rejected gratuitous acts of sex and
violence. They would agree with Ramsey Campbell, author
of The Influence, who once said: "In the
worst horror fiction, violence is a substitute for
imagination and just about everything else one might look
for in fiction." Campbell was drawing the same
distinction between sensationalism and the legitimate use
of violence as my students did:
"Stories that have no justification for their
violence bore me."
"Blood and guts shouldn't be used
unnecessarily, some writers don't understand this."
"What ruins a story for me? Too much
purposeless blood and gore."
I should add that Moravian College is church-afffliated
in name only; thesi are typical students from a variety
of religious and non-religious backgrounds. Their
reaction is a typical one, and it helps answer a question
posed by many social critics and parents about how far
explicitness can go in the media: Where will it end?
What's the stopping point? These eighteen- to
twenty-year-olds, products of the sexual revolution,
suggest that explicitness contains its own antidote:
These readers also strongly objected to what they called
"unbelievable" writing: setting, characters,
style, or story logic that failed to keep them immersed
in the tale, their skepticism on hold. They wrote:
"The horror has to be made believable. If
not, then the story has nothing for me."
"I have to be able to believe in the setting,
characters and esp. the monsters etc."
Their comments touch on one of the paradoxes and
challenges of dark fantasy: An author must write so
convincingly, so realistically that the reader achieves a
"willing suspension of disbelief" in the face
of the patently unreal. Most English professors, whose
primary focus is the "slice of life" moralistic
tale, would have a difficult time understanding the
pitfall that these students are pointing out.
Horror fans know that, in this genre, writing believably
means more than just capturing everyday reality. It means
using the same qualities of prose found in the best
mainstream writing to set up a quotidian reality, and
then to move the reader beyond it into the realm of the
fantasticwhile maintaining his belief in something
that just isn't so. To quote another grand pere of the
modern horror story:
"Pound for pound, fantasy makes a tougher opponent
for the creative person."
Horror fans know that, even if their teachers don't.
Robert Bloch, whose Psycho staked out fresh
territory for the psychological horror story, remarked in
his introduction to How to Write Tales of Horror,
Fantasy and Science Fiction that:
" . . . in order for a writer to do his or her
best, he must incorporate originality, a prime ingredient
for success. If the theme is old, the twist or payoff
must be new."
My students couldn't agree more. They derided
"stories that seem to be carbon copies of
others." These readers demanded that "a plot
should not seem even remotely familiar," and that
"if the supernatural is used, it must have a new
Like Bloch, the students seemed to recognize that each
genre places a premium on different writing talents: the
extrapolative powers of the SF author, the observational
skills of the mainstream realist, the plotting finesse of
the mystery writer.
The students were laying down an important caveat for
aspiring horror writers: In a genre which attempts to
entertain with suspense and dark fantasy, there is a keen
demand for raw imaginative power and an unorthodox
daring-do of mind that can take writer and reader where
others fear to tread.
It's the End
Young readers have a genuine enthusiasm for this
literature. Contemporary horror fiction taps an
excitement for reading in them that is almost always
absent from a classroom dominated by the classics and the
modern darlings of English Departments. Anne Tyler, Saul
Bellow, and John Fowles are fine writers, but what truly
excites these students' lust for story is horror. It
speaks to them in a way that Silas Marner does
not. Their response to horror fiction reaffirms the force
that literature can have in young lives when teachers
These readers have also a clear set of their own
standards. While they can appreciate the graphic detail
and daring assaults of extreme horror, they still insist
certain boundaries be observed. They demand quality
writing, especially in characterization. One of the more
hotly contested questions among criticswhether
horror should be psychologically or supernaturally
baseddoesn't seem important to them. An equal
number of students wrote "A good horror story blends
reality, fantasy, and the supernatural" as did those
who said, "I like stories that can really happen
because they scare me the most."
In the end, although the surface features of the horror
tale have changed to reflect the times, today's readers
still want genuine characters inside a vividly written
story based on a fresh and frightening premise, pulled
together by a suspenseful plot that keeps them turning
the pagesrapidly. Although no formula can guarantee
writing success, that one is a good place to start.
© by David Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Taylor's horror and dark suspense fiction has appeared in
anthologies such as Masques, Pulphouse and Scare
Care; and in magazines like Cemetery Dance,
Sci-Fi Channel Magazine and Gorezone. His
1990 short story "Lessons in Wildlife" earned
an honorable mention in that year's "Best Horror,
Science Fiction and Fantasy" awards. Author and
coauthor of five horror novels, David's latest works are
a collection of short stories, Hell is for Children,
and a guide to nonfiction writing, The Freelance
Success Book. Both are available at http://www.peakwriting.com
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