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'X-Files' Writer On How To Tell A Great Horror Story

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The following is an excerpt written by former X-Files writer Sara B. Cooper from Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers [Tarcher, $15.95]:

In 2007, Eduardo B. Andrade and Joel B. Cohen published a paper called “On the Consumption of Negative Feelings.” The premise was that when individuals who choose to avoid fearful things were ”...embedded in a protective frame of mind, such that there was sufficient psychological disengagement or detachment, they experienced positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness.” In other words, while snug in our homes or in groups at a movie theater, most people love a good scary story. And what is scarier than a good monster?

I was seven years old when I read my first monster story. In it, a vacuum machine was turned into a mechanical sound eater. If anything made noise, the machine would “suck out the sound,” rendering the noisemaker inert. Unfortunately, its inventor soon realized that when the sound vacuum encountered a living thing, it would suck the noise right out of it, leaving it dead. The last line of the story describes the protagonist, trapped in the house with her invention, hiding from it and suddenly being aware of the sound of her heart as she hears the vacuum’s wheels moving toward her. I didn’t sleep for months.

Why did this scare me? It was about a person who did something without thinking about the consequences and thereby created a situation she couldn’t control that was deadly. That fear rules my whole life: that I will do something without thinking it out, and it will have dire consequences. Anyone else have something like that? Yeah, I thought so. There’s another fear I have—that something that I had nothing to do with comes in and takes control over my life. Again, I feel I’m not alone in this. Thankfully, I put my neuroses to work, as any writer does.

A good monster has to engender fear. The writer has to be aware of what scares them. Not just spiders or women with too much plastic surgery (although I suspect there’s a monster story there...), but those quiet fears that we may not even be aware of.

Jung wrote in On the Psychology of the Unconscious, “It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.... Let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster.” “It is a frightening thought”—there is our drama. Our normal, rational self’s fear of our inner demon. A cold, honest look at our darker selves takes courage and a willingness to let go of self-judgment. We must look for the demon within in order to create the monster without. Take a splash of whatever inner rage, anger, or just murderous impulses you can find inside; take an equal part of the fear that your inner demon will take control. Split them up between your monster and your protagonist. Then you have a story.

Secondly, we have to look at the manifestation of the monster—what is its form? I remember that first scary story. Many monsters and many more years later, I’m still struck by how the scariest things are often the most simple, familiar objects. It falls into my “What is scary?” list. Here are just some of my items:

The unfamiliar: This includes things that look and act differently than we do. Take the movie "ALIEN," for example. The monster therel ooks, breeds, and communicates differently than we do. The irrational, the unexpected.

The unseen: For people who are sighted, most of their sense of reality comes from visual cues. To hear something without seeing it creates a profound sense of fear.

Being out of control: This includes having control taken from us because our monsters are stronger or have super powers, as well as being manipulated or tricked by someone or something.

Making a mistake that will cost lives: Building a creature that will kill others as in Frankenstein’s monster, getting a gremlin wet, or allowing cloned dinosaurs to get out of the compound.

The familiar gone wrong: Anything that defies the rules of our reality. A child’s toy that can suddenly talk and walk and has a murderous streak; a car that has a mind of its own; shadows that move on their own accord and can cause you to spontaneously combust if you touch them.

Lastly there has to be stakes. What’s in jeopardy? Death and loss are always good motivators. There are all forms of death and loss. You could lose your sanity. Your identity. It could be the loss of every other living soul. The loss of a loved one. Pick one or come up with your own form of living death.

To drive home the stakes, you’ve got to have a Redshirt. You Star Trek fans know what I’m talking about. For all you others, Wikipedia defines Redshirt as: “A stock character in fiction who dies soon after being introduced. The term originates with fans of Star Trek television series (1966–1969), from the red shirts worn by Starfleet security officers who frequently die during episodes. Redshirt deaths are often used to dramatize the potential peril that the main characters face.”

Also, don’t be afraid to “bleed your lead.” This really drives home the stakes.

Writing Exercise

1. Take time to make a list of things that make you feel scared, anxious, unsettled. Find your fear.

2. Manifest it in some form.

a. Pick a familiar “safe” object or living thing in your home—a blender, your printer, a plant or animal, or a loved one. The more innocuous and seemingly safe, the better. We all know a knife is dangerous . . . but a hamster?
OR

b. Create something that falls outside of the rules of our normal reality. Avoid the well-used tropes of vampires, werewolves, zombies...

3. Pick the stakes/jeopardy.

4. Write a short story of how your protagonist first begins to realize something is wrong, tries to fight/escape, throw in a Redshirt or two, and let it finish so that the reader is left unsettled (i.e., the protagonist doesn’t win).

CORRECTION: A former headline for this post stated that this excerpt was how to tell a great "sci-fi" story, rather than "horror" story. This has been corrected.

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