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No Bones About It: How to Write
Part II: What Today's Readers Want
by David Taylor
The question is simple: How to write awe-inspiring
stories that leave readers panting and our bank accounts
What worked for M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood in the
20s, Lovecraft in the 30s, Richard Matheson and Ray
Bradbury in the 50s, Robert Aickman in the 60s, Stephen
King in the 70s, Stephen King and Clive Barker in the
80s, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Rick McCammon and Dan
Simmons in the 90s won't necessarily frighten or
entertain readers in the 2000s. What will?
During a course in "Contemporary Horror
Fiction" at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, I
asked thirty-two undergraduates, who represented every
major from accounting to zoology, exactly that question
as well as several others in a market survey of this
genre's traditionally most enthusiastic audience: young
I first asked, "What are the elements that
make for a good horror story?" And then had
them explore the flip-side: "What ruins a
horror story for you?"
Would their answers reveal a difference between
"standards" that critics and teachers have set
for contemporary horror versus the personal criteria that
readers use as they stand in front of the rack at Barnes
and Noble and decide whether or not to reach for their
Even a cursory glance at best-seller lists, especially
those from decades past, reveals the striking difference
between popular taste (what sells) and critical taste
(what's praised). That sounds hideously commercial, and
any writer who would slavishly follow the results of a
market survey is bound to write perfunctory, uninspired
But there is also too much focus in school on literature
written mainly for an audience of critics and teachers.
That's a shame because the true glory of literature lies
in its ability to hold an audience spellbound with the
power of narrative, which is our oldest and most
prevalent way of understanding the world.
We've always told stories to each other, especially
horror and fantasy stories, as a way of mentally shaping
and reshaping the inscrutable universe around us.
Although one may deplore and berate TV and movies as
sugar-water substitutes for the meat and potatoes of
literature, these media satisfy the human thirst for
story, for narrative.
And whenever a "serious" writer forsakes the
obligation to tell a good story, whenever the purpose for
writing is no longer to weave the magic spell of
narrative but to produce "great art" and to
please elitist critics, that writer will surely be
replaced by movies and TVor a better storyteller.
So I agree with J.N. Williamson, who in connection with
this course appeared at our college for a lecture and
public reading. This popular American novelist said to my
students one day in class: "Art is accidental; it is
incidental to having told our story as best we can."
The fact that more than one hundred students tried to
register for the thirty-two available seats in this
course is evidence that horror authors like Williamson
have never lost their commitment to tell a good story, to
entertainand students know that. Therefore, an
attempt to understand the expectations of readers in this
genre isn't a bad thing; indeed, it is a manifestly
logical and necessary thing.
The results of the survey surprised me. By the end of the
semester, we had read and discussed over forty stories
from commercial and small press magazines. Our semester
of dark fantasy was brightened by the novels of several
"sons": Jackson, Matheson, Williamson, Wilson;
as well as by Straub, Koontz, and the King.
Student reaction was as varied as our story types. Some
reveled in shock horror and splatterpunk, finding the
quiet literary horror tale monumentally boring. Others
felt that technohorror and urban allegorical horror spoke
most directly to them in this age AIDS and 9/11. Still
others couldn't get enough of the ghosts, vampires and
werewolves of old. Surely, I thought after presiding over
impassioned debates about the literary merits of
"Blood Rape of the Lust Ghouls," there is going
to be little, if any, agreement among this bunch on the
elements of a good horror story. I was horribly wrong.
Keep 'Em On Edge
One result trumped all others: 97 percent of the students
listed "suspense" as the primary ingredient of
a good horror story. Keep in mind that this was not a
multiple-choice survey; these students had a blank page
in front of them and could have written down anything.
The fact that all but one self-selected the element of
suspense further underscores its cardinal importance to
In effect, the results say that these readers bring to
the horror story one paramount expectation: to be
entertained with the element of anticipation, dread, and
uncertainty; in a word, suspense. Virtually every student
wrote something like:
"I want to be kept on the edge of my
"True suspense keeps you glued to the book
until it's finished, then you say
'Whew! ' "
"I like stories that have constant suspense
and give me ideas of how to get revenge on my
Their comments on suspense provide a strong clue as to
how to handle one of the most challenging aspects of
writing horror: providing a satisfying ending. These
students preferred for the unrelenting suspense to lead
to an unexpected, even shocking ending. They wrote:
"I want the suspense to lead to a good twist
at the end."
"A good ending is one you didn't
"A suspenseful ending is one you didn't
expect and leaves you scared shitless!"
Now, all horror scribes owes thanks to Douglas E. Winter,
who has engendered more respect for this genre than
almost any other modern critic. Yet it is both
interesting and instructive that in his essay,
"Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in
Horror Fiction," this eminent critic does not once
Yet when professional writers like Dean Koontz and J.N.
Williamson instruct us on the craft of writing horror
fiction, their primary topic is how to create and
maintain suspense. So, at least in this instance, there
is a difference between the critic and the reader, for
whom the bottom line is to be entertained. No doubt a
writer should aspire to standards of excellence. But in
order to be read, which is surely a writer's first goal,
he had first better make sure he tells a suspense-packed
story that leads to a dynamite ending.
Someone Like Me
What surprised me about the second result was how much
everyonestudents, writers, criticsagreed on
it. Believable characters are what hold a horror story
together. They are the engines.of its power. In his essay
"Keeping the Reader on the Edge of His Seat,"
Koontz, the acknowledged "Dean of Suspense,"
provides this advice:
"Suspense in fiction results primarily from
the reader's identification with and concern about lead
characters who are complex, convincing, and
Douglas Winter lists characterization as his second
standard of excellence and quotes another pretty good
"You have got to love the people ... that
allows horror to be possible."
My students agreed: they listed believable, sympathetic
characters as the second key to a good horror story.
Typical of their comments were:
"A really good horror story for me is when
theauthor is able to make you feel for the
characterstheir pain, fear, happiness,
"Having believable characters is what lets me
get into the story."
Considering these comments, it should come as no surprise
that students voted as their favorite work of the
semester Robert R. McCammon's "Nightcrawlers"
(Masques I, edited by J.N. Williamson), a suspenseful
story of a Vietnam vet's nightmarish guilt, a sorrow
which becomes so strong that it explodes with a harrowing
and deadly substantiality.
A Mirror for Madness
Perhaps another reason for the popularity of
"Nightcrawlers" is its vivid settinga
stormy summer night at a roadside diner in rural
Alabamaand points to horror's third requirement:
A story must be anchored solidly in a believable setting.
Modern readers expect the horror story to take place in
familiar surroundings that provide a mating ground for
the natural and the supernatural. Today's readers have
internalized this expectation: a context of normality, a
true-to-life backdrop that accentuates the grotesque.
There was a close similarity between my students'
comments and those of critics. In "Horrors: An
Introduction to Writing Horror Fiction," T.E.D.
Klein, Twilight Zone Magazine's first editor, writes that
before bringing the supernatural on stage, the writer
must first "establish, so thoroughly that we can
believe in it, the reality of the world."
One student put this simply as: "I've got to believe
I'm there." When another student wrote, "A good
horror story needs a balance between the realistic and
the bizarre," it's almost as if he had been reading
Douglas Winter: "An effective horror writer embraces
the ordinary so that the extraordinary will be
So readers and critics agree: Use of the fantastic does
not excuse the horror author from the task of conjuring
up a vivid, everyday reality on the page. On the
contrary, it increases the importance of that task.
Picking Up the Pace
Another strong preference closely related to suspense
concerns pace. What should an aspiring horror writer make
of such comments as:
"The action has to keep up. Once it lets
down, it's all over for me."
"I like it when the tone is very fast-paced
reading. It's too boring when it reads slow and feels
Is there a key to best-sellerdom in this student's desire
"Concise and coherent stories [that] are easy
to read and entertaining. When reading for entertainment,
one shouldn't have to analyze a story to understand
Why this desire for a fast-paced, action-packed story? No
doubt much could be made of the shortened attention spans
of this generation that has never known life without
television and Walkmen. And it all would be off topic.
The fact is, when they pick up a horror story, these
young people want to be entertained.
They may surreptitiously admire James Joyce's dazzling
experiments, they may harbor a secret craving for John
Updike's perfumed sentences, they may even look to Saul
Bellow for help in an existential crisis.
But when they pick up a horror story, they want fun. And
that means fast-paced and suspenseful, easy on the
literary embellishment, and without a side order of
metaphysical reflections on life in a godless universe,
thank you very much.
Gore: Taboo or Not Taboo?
The results here point out a distinction between literary
and celluloid horror.These students warned against too
much explicitness in literature:
"Too much gore, if not justified, ruins a
story, although I like to see it on films to admire the
Those who expressed a preference for gore and the emotion
of repugnance did so with qualifiers:
"A little gore doesn't hurt."
"Graphic gore to a tastful point."
Explicitness is an expected part of the genre today;
indeed, the job of the horror writer always has been to
assault taboos, broadcast our unspeakable urges, and show
us the nauseating possibilities that lie within.
But a line separates effective from ineffective use of
the genre's extreme and rebellious materials: They must
be justified by the story's context, tone and theme. As
sometimes-splatterpunk Robert R. McCammon (Swan Song, The
Wolf's Hour, Boy's Life) said in an interview:
"I don't believe there can be any bad taste in
creating a scene, only bad writing in handling it."
Robert R. McCammond
Many expressed a preference for suggestiveness in
description, which we called "narrative
blurring"a phrase T.E.D. Klein uses to
summarize the dictum of the father of modern horror:
"Never state an horror when it can be
"Description should be only enough so that
the reader can get a picture, but not so much that
there's nothing left for the imagination."
Such comments illustrate the principle that still guides
these jaded viewers of the hack-em-and-slash-em films:
Our own imaginations can still scare us more than any
author could ever hope to.
Good horror writers merely collaborate with our minds.
© 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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