I've never been to a multi-genre writers' conference before, so when the talented writer/editor/instruct Leslie Salas invited me to teach at this year's Florida Writers Conference, I was excited. I've always had a hard time explaining what I like to read, and sometimes it's hard to explain what I like to write. I'm no expert in any one genre, but I've read and played with selections and themes from most of them. My own writing is a step outside of literary fiction - I might call it experimental literary fiction except that I experiment with my characters' psychology and faith edging toward the supernatural, not so much with form. All of my formal education has been in pretty straightforward literary fiction, leaving very little room to cross-pollinate with the wonderful tools from other genres. I was thrilled to have a chance to learn from writers across so many categories this weekend.
Sidney Williams' workshops on monster building and using the reader's imagination to create horror were the best things I have heard to help me finish reworking one of my characters. Sidney concentrated on the idea of "Quiet Horror," the deep, infantile fears that grow from the unseen. Here are a few things I learned, which may be obvious to you if you're a horror writer or fan, but which really put into words what I needed to know for building horror into a literary-ish story:
Things vs. Their Shadows: Don't show the scary Thing if you can help it. Instead, let the atmosphere, characters' anticipation and imagination, and outcomes create the shadow of the Thing. Anticipation and possibility are more haunting than a 3-D, face-to-face encounter when it comes to monsters.
Don't Explain: It's good if the reader has to decide whether the character was right or wrong in this anticipation. If characters are reacting to well-founded superstitions or assumptions, readers may never need to be told if the characters were acting on correct superstitions and assumptions. The possibility that the character - and we, the readers, who followed the character - is wrong in these anticipations will make the story linger longer in the reader's mind. "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs is a great example.
Types of Fear: The goal is to get the character (and the reader) back to a place of infantile fear. Some fear categories are the unseen/unknown, pain, loss of control, and mortality.
Sidney gave us a great list of examples of quiet horror, and I'm looking forward to reading them. Do you have favorite quiet horror stories or questions about horror writing in a non-horror genre? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.
Image: Credit, Attribution 2.0 Generic License