Writing horror can be tricky and sometimes you need advice from people who have done it before you. Joe Hill has some great advice for horror writers.
Joe Hill’s advice is to write characters that people will care about. Avoid writing from an outline; use your character as the focus to create a story. Place your character in an interesting situation and then follow them to see what happens.
Joe hill is the son of Stephen King. His real name is Joseph Hillstrom King but, when he first started publishing, he wanted to try to become successful without help from his father’s reputation so he used the pen name Joe Hill.
He started publishing short stories in 1997 and released his first novel, Heart Shaped Box in 2007. After the release of Heart Shaped Box, he confirmed that he was the son of Stephen King. Variety magazine had already revealed it the year before.
When he was 9 years old, he appeared in the 1982 movie Creepshow which was written by his father, Stephen King.
Watch Joe Hill give advice on writing:
Write Characters the Reader Will Care About
Joe Hill says that the reader should care about the characters. In a horror story, all sorts of terrible things are going to happen to the protagonist. However, it is meaningless if no one cares what happens to this person.
We have to like the protagonist. We have to want them to succeed. That way, there is tension when we suspect that they may not succeed.
Too often in stories, the characters are one-dimensional. They get killed off like vermin and we can’t even remember their names.
Some stories will set up the characters like bowling pins for the villain to knock down, says Joe Hill.
This is often the case in B-grade horror movies, but it happens in novels too.
In his book, Save The Cat, Blake Snyder says that we have to include a scene where the main character metaphorically saves the cat. That means that the hero does something so that we like him or her.
Once the hero does this one nice thing, we can move on with the story and get to the horror. One scene is all it takes to make the reader like the protagonist.
You can also include scenes for side characters that we want the reader to like. Once we have a cast of likeable characters, it will be so much more effective when horrible things start to happen to them.
Here is another article on writing Horror Characters
The Villain is not the Focus
One of the mistakes of many horror stories is that they focus too much on the villain. As Joe Hill pointed out in the bowling pin example, the characters are too often just used as cannon fodder for the villain to kill off.
This is not an effective way to write a horror story and it reaks of cheapness.
The villain is the antagonist. Whether it is a monster, a psychopath, or a satanic cult, the villain’s role is there to push the hero into action. The spotlight is on the hero, not the villain.
Many horror movies end up being about the villain. For example, the Friday the 13th series, the Nightmare on Elm Street series or the Halloween series. This might make you think that the villain is the star, but in each of these movie series, there is always a hero who struggles against the villain.
Halloween would be boring if Michael Myers just kept killing everyone and no one got away. Nightmare on Elm Street would have no tension if Freddy Kreuger killed all the kids of Elm Street and nobody was any the wiser. Friday the 13th would be boring if Jason, the unstoppable killing machine, wasn’t stopped, at least temporarily.
In each of these movies, there is a hero or heroine that we have to care about above all else or the story becomes flat.
Horror novels work the same way. No matter how good your villain is, it can’t take centre stage.
Read about Point of View in Horror
Don’t use an Outline
Another important point that Joe Hill brings up is that he doesn’t like to work from an outline. When you have a good character, one that people care about and want to know more about, then you don’t need to be too concerned with plot.
Plotting out your novel, or working from an outline, will often make your story seem robotic and lifeless.
If you know everything that is going to happen before you start writing, then you will probably find it hard to become passionate about your story. This will show in your writing.
Good writing reflects the author’s emotions and curiosity. You have to treat your story like a living thing that grows and takes shape the more time you spend on it.
In the movie and TV industries, they like to have screenwriters work from an outline because it makes things predictable. If they no what going to happen in a TV show, they can make changes and add things according to audience polls and market research.
This may be effective for churning out content, but none of the great novels has ever been written this way. Many authors have started working for a production company, believing that they are getting a big break, only to find that they hate working this way. It sucks all the fun out of writing.
If you are used to working from an outline, try writing freestyle for a change.
Work From Character
Joe Hill says that you should write from your characters. This means that instead of writing from an outline, you start with a character, your protagonist, and build the story around them.
What are they like? What is the problem they are having? Why is it a problem for them? Has something like this happened to them before? What are their flaws and how do they hide them? What do they think about the people around them and what do they think the people around them think of them?
By following these questions and writing scenes that illustrate them, you can build up your story in a way that will surprise you and inspire you to keep writing.
It makes sense. The story is really about the characters, so writing around the characters is the best way to make the story a good one.
Working from an outline may seem more efficient, but it’s hard to create empathy for your characters when you are just going through the motions.
Ideally, as you write, you will discover new things about your characters that never occurred to you when you thought of your story.
You may even find that you don’t need to think of a story. If you just start writing about a character, filling in the details and answering questions about them, you will naturally come up with a satisfying story about them.
See Where it Takes you
Joe Hill says that writing around your characters is a matter of following them from scene to scene. He says it’s like winding up a toy and then you just follow it to see where it goes.
You never know what you will write, but you will have a lot more fun finding out. Working this way gives your stories a freshness that you don’t get when you work from an outline.
Some writers prefer to work from an outline, and that’s fine. It takes all kinds of people to make the world. But this is Joe Hill’s writing advice, and he says he prefers to write around characters.
This type of writing is an exploration. As corny as it sounds, writing when you don’t know what will happen is an adventure. In the case of writing horror, you can scare yourself in ways you never could have predicted.
As an aspiring horror writer, you should try out Joe Hill’s writing method. Make your characters likeable, make them the focus of the story and fill in the story as you explore your characters.
If you feel pain at what you put your characters through, then your readers will feel it too.
Until next time, happy writing.