Guest Post: How I write quiet horror
How I write quiet horror
By: Die Booth
As an author I’m absolutely delighted that the term ‘quiet horror’ is recently gaining a bit of traction in the writing world. I’ve struggled for years to come up with the right, understood, term for the stories I pen that manage to straddle the horror and ‘literary’ genres in a way that is sometimes a nightmare to market or even describe. So here are my tips on how to write quiet horror.
What is quiet horror?
For me, it’s easier to define quiet horror by what it isn’t. Slashers, gore, body horror – all of these are much-loved horror subgenres (and that’s not to say all of these can’t be quiet horror too, if handled in that way) but they tend to be a lot more in-your-face than quiet horror. Quiet horror isn’t the cannibal in the attic, it’s the insidious, creeping feeling that there might be a cannibal in the attic but you’re too scared to go and look. It’s not the jump-scare, it’s the soul-shrinking anxiety that at any point something might jump out. It’s not screaming and running from the bloody fiend that dragged itself from the cellar, it’s your throat closing silently because you’re too afraid to scream at what you cannot even see to run from. In short – it’s not what’s said, it’s what’s not said that defines quiet horror for me.
Not saying things
I find it can be a tricky balance to strike between saying too much and not saying enough. Make it too vague and things can get boring. Spell it out too clearly and it can break the tension. Here’s some tips to try and help with that.
When you’re writing horror, you want your readers to feel a certain amount of fear, be that gross-out repulsion or check-under-the-bed paranoia. When writing quiet horror, what I aim for is dread. If you can build up a creeping sense of dread then you have the choice to either pay it off with a horrible conclusion (much like how swearing has more impact if used sparingly!) or leave it hanging and maroon your reader with an unshakeable sense of discomfort (this is very effective, but you have to be sure it’s not too dissatisfying, too).
To build dread, I try to create atmosphere. Without any gory descriptions of evisceration to lean on, the horror has to be more subtle. The majority of readers would probably be totally unaffected by that one locked door in the hotel room, so you need to vividly communicate to them just why it’s so upsetting. This needn’t involve a lot of adjectives or even a lot of physical description, so long as you get across how your character is feeling towards that door, and why. Quiet horror is often very character-driven and looks at what drives our fears from the inside – our vulnerabilities, memories, anxieties – rather than from outside events or threats.
Put yourself into the story
One really effective way of writing quiet horror is to use your own real-life experiences. What are you afraid of? How does it make you feel? Where does your mind go if you allow yourself to daydream about it? Of course, if your biggest fear is zombies then you’re possibly not going to get a quiet horror tale out of it (but I’d love to see someone write one!) But if it’s that one photograph in the back of your nan’s china cabinet that irrationally freaked you out as a child and still lingers in your memory to this day, you might be onto a winner.
No, really – put yourself into it physically
I’m not saying that you should go potholing in a haunted cave when you’re claustrophobic, but it does help – me, at least – to experience something in real life. If you’re writing about someone who hears voices in the forest and you have the means to go and take a walk in some woods, then it can really help with building your story. Go to a location that evokes something of the feeling that you want to convey. Explore, sit with it, and note down anything you can use – what details do you notice, how does it smell, how do you feel?
Or put yourself into it virtually
I don’t think any writer needs to be told about the importance of research. But in addition to researching factual stuff around what you want to write, I also find it really helpful to research atmosphere. If you’re writing about that haunted cave, then head over to Youtube and watch some videos of haunted caves. Gather your information from there – not just facts about caves, but how it looks, how it sounds, how it makes you and the person filming the footage feel.
Leave the story with them
By this, I mean two things. Firstly, trust your audience. It can be tempting to spell things out, and I have to admit that sometimes my work has been passed over because I don’t tend to do that enough for some readers. This, however, is just a matter of reader taste. For quiet horror especially, it’s important to trust that your readers will ‘get’ your story, despite its subtlety. If it sends a chill down your spine, then trust that it’ll do the same for others.
Finally, I want to leave on a term that I really love: fridge horror. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FridgeHorror This neat term basically refers to things that you only realise are horrifying a while after you’ve read them, or once you’ve looked a little too closely at them. I’ll use one of my favourites to illustrate: the remake of House on Haunted Hill is definitely not quiet horror, but one of the most memorably horrible bits in it for me is (SPOILER) the very end scene where you go from relief that some of the protagonists escaped the house, to the grim realisation that they’re trapped on the roof of a building with nowhere else to go.
One of the things I aim for most in quiet horror is a bit of fridge horror, or at least to leave the reader with a lingering sense of unease. If you manage rather than to terrify people whilst they’re reading, to haunt them long after they’ve put down the book, then you’re definitely doing it right.
Die Booth’s latest release is ‘Making Friends (and other fiction)
Synopsis: Anna answers an advertisement to find her ideal man. Harry gets more than he expected when he buys a rare bottle of wine. Donny comes up with a plan to get the perfect engagement ring for her girlfriend.
Coming out, coming home or letting go: from the Cheshire Literature Prize-winning author of Spirit Houses, My Glass is Runn and 365 Lies come 25 queer little tales of where we come from, what we hide from and what we love.
Sometimes horrifying, sometimes beautiful and occasionally both – Making Friends straddles the boundaries of genre with themes of identity and belonging, fear and love.
About The Author:
Die Booth likes wild beaches and exploring dark places. When not writing, he DJs at Chester’s best (and only) goth club. You can read his prize-winning stories in places like LampLight Magazine, The Fiction Desk, Flame Tree Press and The Cheshire Prize for Literature anthologies. His books ‘My Glass is Runn’, ‘365 Lies’ (profits go to the MNDA) and ‘Spirit Houses’, plus his new single author collection ‘Making Friends (and other fictions)’ are available online. You can find out more about his writing at http://diebooth.wordpress.com/ or say hi on Twitter @diebooth
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The Horror Tree is a resource for horror authors which was created in 2011. The main goal when starting the site was to include all of the latest horror anthologies and publishers that are taking paying submissions. A resource useful for both new and experienced publishers alike looking for an outlet for their written material!