I’ve been getting a lot of asks about writing horror lately, and I’d like to take the time to answer all of them! But for now, I wanted to share my top tip for evoking fear in the reader.
Keep in mind, I am not a horror writer by trade, but I utilize it a lot in my stories – particularly those of the magical realism variety – and I am a huge fan of the horror genre. This is what I’ve learned:
Your most important tool is the reader’s imagination.
How many times have you been absorbed in a horror movie, adrenaline pumping and watching, enraptured, through your fingers, only to be smacked back to reality by a goofy monster design or ludicrous backstory?
Some of the best, and most memorable horror fiction and media, on the other hand, understand the power of what they don’t show you.
I’m not the biggest fan of Blair Witch Project – or how it treated its cast – but it earned back over 248 million dollars within its eight days against a $60,000 budget and remains solidified in the minds of countless viewers. It is, undeniably, an effective and memorable piece of media, largely thanks to what they do and don’t show us.
What they show us: local lore, the character’s reactions and escalating fear, an admittedly haunting and ambiguous ending, a shitload of trees.
What they don’t show us: the monster.
Not only do we not see the monster, but we don’t see its motivations, its backstory. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what it wants. And that’s terrifying, for us and for the characters.
Now, let’s look at a personal favorite of mine: Coraline, both the book and the amazing movie. “But Caff,” you say, “Coraline isn’t a horror movie! It’s a fantasy, adapted from a children’s book!” To which I say, you are wrong. Coraline is the scariest shit I have ever seen in my life. Everyone who wants to write horror should read and watch it.
What makes the Other Mother such a viscerally horrifying threat? Is it the fact that she preys on vulnerable children, and has been doing so for over 150 years? Okay, probably. But: just as important is the fact that that’s the only thing we know about her.
We don’t know where she came from, how she came to be. She’s never weighed down or humanized by a backstory. We only know her threat to Coraline, her power, and what she’s done to children in the past. And that’s scary as fuck.
This is also the reason why masks are such an effective tool in horror. For one thing, it literally puts you in the shoes of the character, who is as blind to the antagonist’s true nature and intentions as you are.
And, just as importantly, it invokes the imagination of the reader. Because what we can imagine – or try to imagine – is almost always scarier than the fact, in fiction or otherwise.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
Learning of the objective correlative is like learning a new word. Once you know what it means, you start to see it everywhere.
I learned of this literary gem during my last grad school residency. As defined by Merriam-Webster, an objective correlative is, “something (such as a situation or chain of events) that symbolizes or objectifies a particular emotion and that may be used in creative writing to evoke a desired emotional response in the reader.”
Most of my writer peeps have probably, unknowingly, used objective correlatives in their own work. I know I have. And if you’ve picked up a book within the past decade, than you’re at least familiar with one or two.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples of famous objective correlatives.
"The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe
Here’s an easy one. The objective correlative, in this case, is Poe’s titular corvid, who represents grief, loss, and hopelessness.
The bird visits the nameless protagonist “once upon a midnight dreary” while he ponders the death of his beloved, “the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” When his asks his winged visitor if he will see Lenore in the afterlife, the bird merely replies, “Nevermore.” It embodies his sorrow, loss of faith, and fear that they will never be reunited.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Can you guess? In this case, the objective correlative is our boy Richard Parker, the oddly named tiger who accompanies Pi on his lone voyage. Richard represents Pi himself, while their journey alone in a lifeboat represents Pi’s spiritual journey.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
First off, I highly recommend everyone read this book – especially everyone who thinks The Classics™ are reserved to the angsty male protagonists who were shoved in your face during high school. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does not fuck around: it deals with poverty, classicism, drug addiction, female sexuality and sexual autonomy, and an assload of complex, flawed, strong-as-hell female characters. And it was written in 1943. Do yourself a huge-ass favor, and read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Anyhoodle. The tree in question is the Tree of Heaven, growing outside of Francie Nolan’s window. Though the tree is considered a nuisance, and was chopped down several of times, it continues to grow. The tree represents Francie’s determination to survive, grow, and better herself, in spite of the destitution in which she grew up.
The Great Gastby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Speaking of angsty male protagonists, let’s have a look at one of the angstiest of them all. This is a pretty famous example, so see if you can figure it out.
Give up? It’s the green light. The green light represents Gatsby’s longing for Daisy.
Where'd You go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
Let’s conclude by moving away from objective correlatives which are, you know, objects. In this case, Bernadette has literally disappeared into her role as a wife and a mother. She has completely lost her sense of identity, which is represented by her physical disappearance.
So, why should you care?
Simple! The objective correlative is a great tool. It conveys emotions in a far more organic and powerful way than simply hitting the reader over the head with them.
Imagine if “The Raven” was just a poem about some dude feeling sad and grieving his dead girlfriend. No ravens to be seen. That would be a total bummer, it would immediately make the title grievously misleading, and no one would probably remember it.
Or if Life of Pi was just a story of a kid trying to survive in a lifeboat, alone, for over 150 pages. That would be just plain bleak, and a lot less exciting, interesting, or memorable.
The tree in Tree Grows in Brooklyn emphasizes Francie’s struggle, and enhances the emotional poignancy of the narrative. The moment when it occurs to us that Francie is the tree, growing upwards in the face of adversity, is far more powerful than having it simply spelled out to us.
In many cases, the objective correlative is the physical conflict that represents the emotional conflict, as in the case of Where’d You Go, Bernadette – without it, there would simply be no book.
So next time you read a book, make sure you have a pen in your hand – I always do – and see if you can spot the objective correlative. As with any literary tool, the more you read about them, the more they can work for you!
I hope this helps, and happy writing!
I’m immortal, and I don’t think about it that much. Not because it isn’t worrisome. Being immortal is inherently worrisome, just like the alternative is worrisome. Existence in general is worrisome.
But I try not to worry about being immortal, because worrying about it is futile. Trying to comprehend the eternity that stretches before me is as unavailing as trying to comprehend what comes after death. After a while, pondering existential questions with no attainable answers stops feeling philosophical and becomes tedious, self-fellating bullshit. You just have to live what’s in front of you.
If it sounds like I’m just figuring that out, it’s because I sort of am. By immortal standards, I’m an infant. Disappointing, I know. I think I’d look fabulous in a toga.
When it started, it was the February fourteenth of 1945. An American plane was hit in the engine by Japanese fire, fell from the slate gray sky like a shooting star. Its blazing red reflection ignited the swell of colorless water. And then it was gone, taking with it all the color in the world.
In that plane was my fellow air force pilot. The love of my life.
I know what you’re thinking: you weren’t alive in ‘45, and you weren’t a man. Well, I’m gonna tell you you’re wrong on both counts. You’ve been a man before. You’ll be one again. It doesn’t matter to me, so long as it’s you.
And let me tell you, sweetheart, you don’t know what love is, ‘till you fall in love in the World War II air force. Every passing touch is cherished, every moment together, a fleeting eternity. It was all very Spartan.
I reminded myself every minute of every day that I could lose you, tried to operate under the assumption that I would. I thought that might lessen the pain of it.
Which, I can cheerfully report, it didn’t. At all.
After you died, the world stayed as cold and colorless as the ocean that swallowed you. The war ended, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. I came home to parades and streamers and cheering crowds, and all I could think was, He’s dead. He’s dead, and I’m alive. How horribly wrong is that?
So I decided to fix it.
I got myself up on a good, tall chair, I put a noose around my neck, and I jumped.
Dangled there for a good, long while, looking around my shitty little hotel room and saying goodbye to my life.
To my father, probably still drinking himself to death and kicking his dog back in Illinois.
To my mother, wherever she was. Hopefully happy, and with a fellow who treated her right. Even though she left me with him.
To the apology note taped to my pillow, addressed to whatever poor maid would find me. The fifty cent tip for her troubles.
To the radio I forgot to turn off, to the Singing Weather Girl giving me a badly rhyming, probably inaccurate forecast for snow.
To the dust in the air, ignited by sunlight. Was that all any of us were?
My list of goodbyes got impressively long before I realized something hinky was going on. Namely, I wasn’t dying.
In a more mentally sound state, I might have wondered how I could still be alive after about twenty minutes without any oxygen. At the time, I was mostly upset. For a suicidal person, not dying is very upsetting.
After I figured out how to get myself down – which was no picnic, I’ll tell you – I got my sidearm, and I ate a bullet. That seemed to do the trick.
Then I woke up the next morning in a pool of my own dried blood, with the hole in the back of my head already scabbed over. You’ve gotta wonder, what did the other hotel guests think about the gunshot? Was that, like, a regular occurance in those parts?
But anyway, that’s how I figured I couldn’t die. I don’t think I’d aged for a while, either. Dug up a picture from about six years back of when I was nineteen, and I looked pretty much the same.
Which reminds me, I brought a little something. You see this fellow? Handsome guy, right? It’s sort of a bad picture, but yeah, that’s me. Back in ‘39. I still dress the same way, too. You always made fun of me for that, didn’t you? Said I should’ve been a 1940s television announcer. You weren’t too far off.
Anyway, without the option of dying, I had no choice but to live. Well. Survive, more like.
I got a job as a paper pusher, which I hated more than life itself. I got an apartment. A house. Houses were easier to get back then. Tried not to get attached to anyone, so I wouldn’t have to watch them get old and die.
I know everyone wants to feel safe. But none of them realize that there is no greater loneliness than being safe from death.
The days went slowly. They’re always the slowest without you. To pass the time, I did a lot of real deep thinking about what it meant to be immortal. Like, could my brain comprehend eternity? Would I go insane? If the universe came to an end, would I live on? What if the earth got hit by a meteor? What if I flew into the sun? Thinking about it let me pretend I had some sort of control over it.
The days went slowly, but the years went fast, and suddenly I woke up and it was 1960. Around that time, I realized I should probably do something with my never-ending life.
There were a couple reasons for that. For one thing, I’d been a working the same job and living in the same house for fifteen years, and I realized someone would probably figure out I wasn’t aging. Report me to the government or something.
Next, people were talking about the Vietnam War, and I got this irrational fear I might be drafted. Even though I was, on record, forty-five, and too old to register for draft. But I didn’t want to take any chances. I can’t think of anything worse than watching countless good men die, equipped with the knowledge that I will survive, and coming home without a scratch on me. I still have nightmares from the first time around.
So, I moved across the country, and I enrolled in college for pre-med. I always wanted to be a doctor, anyway, before – well, everything. It was hard work, especially considering I had a sixth grade education. But I wanted to do it right this time. If I had to exist, I wanted my existence to mean something. Because, really, how many people died while I lived? How many people are dying now? An unwanted gift is still a gift, and it felt wrong to just sit on it with my thumbs up my ass.
Late that May, I walked out of a final exam. The first really warm day of the year. Everywhere I looked there were colors, daffodils and tulips and hyacinths, exploding out of the ground like fireworks. Bees humming like little helicopters. Something was different that day. The world was alive again.
That’s when I saw you. You were this tiny little thing, in a little pink dress, one of those warm weather honeys. Fat little blond curls. You looked like Shirley Temple’s big sister.
You couldn’t have been more different from the big, angry man I fell in love with, but – it was you. I can’t explain it. My soul could see something that my eyes couldn’t, and it recognized you.
You noticed me staring, and you looked at me like I was an old friend. Like you’d seen me before, but couldn’t work figure when or where. Then you rounded the corner of the cafeteria, out of sight.
The wind was knocked out of my lungs by the time I chased you down, even though you weren’t five yards away. My heart was a jackhammer. I could barely manage a hello by the time I caught you.
You tilted your head to the side and your eyebrows scrunched together and you said, Do I know you? It was all so you, I wanted to cry. Your words in a different voice. Your soul behind different eyes. I wanted to hug you, to fall to my knees holding you, to sob and blubber about how much I missed you. You, the only person who had ever truly loved me. You, the love of my life. You. You. You.
Instead, I pulled myself together and said, I’m sorry, I saw you walking and I just had to talk to you. Which wasn’t a lie. And then I asked if you’d like to get coffee some afternoon. And you said, How about this afternoon? And so we did.
That was your second life. Your reincarnation. How do I know? Well, I later found out you’d been born nine months after your plane went down. And you had that little birthmark. Yeah, you know the one. You always have that little birthmark. It’s always in the same place, God bless.
But more than anything, like I said, I just recognized you. It’s as simple as that, and as complicated as that.
You brought me to life again. I’d wake up in the morning grateful to be alive, even with the knowledge that I would be alive a little longer than I found optimal. We moved in together my sophomore year, and you filled my house and my heart with warmth and the smell of roses.
You were, obviously, a woman, which took some getting used to. But it had its benefits. I could pick you up, carry you more easily than before. You were a lot more vocal about your feelings, and you laughed a lot, as girls are generally encouraged to do. It was nice to see that. You never laughed enough before.
And I could hold you, hold your hand, kiss you, anywhere. Take you dancing. No one even spared us a glance, except to smile at us. I could never get over that.
The day of our graduation, we got engaged. We took a few photos of that day. Here, I, uh – yeah. Yeah, that’s you, with the little bow in your hair. My beautiful girl. June of ‘64. Look how happy we were.
I said to you that night, as I kissed my way down your chest, I don’t know if there’s a Heaven, but this must be what it’s like.
Not two weeks later, you died again.
Not falling from the sky in a blaze of glory, but hit by a drunk driver leaving the grocery store.
I don’t even know how I processed that. My mind was a screaming wall of static, incapable of thought. I couldn’t reconcile that this could happen. You were supposed to be safe. This was supposed to be your good life, your long life, your happy life, to make up for the short, shitty, painful life you had before. And here I was, alive, while you were dead. Again.
I got this idea that I might sit in the ocean for a hundred years. That seemed reasonable at the time. I only lasted about a week, ‘cause I kept thinking about eels.
It gave me a bit of time to think, though, and I realized something that should have been sort of obvious: I might find you again. Or rather, you might find me. So I should probably be there waiting for you.
And I did. For another two decades, I waited.
That makes me sound sort of useless, so I’ll clarify that I went to medical school.
Around that point, I started to realize that pain is a non-negotiable part of life, and that trying to avoid it was never the point of living. So I really didn’t have any excuse to avoid making friends.
And anyway, it’s a shitty excuse, not forming connections with people because they’re going to die. That’s like never reading any books because you know they’re going to end.
Even though you weren’t there at the time, I think I owed that to you. Those four years we spent together showed me the joy of finitude. They taught me to stop fearing being happy, just because someday I might not be.
Which brings me to your third life. Can’t really tell you about that one. You see, that time, I found you in the AIDS ward. You’d had a tough life. Tougher even than when you were in the air force, which is really saying something. You were in the final stages, right before the virus took you. I won’t go into the details. I promised you I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to.
That was the hardest, seeing you like that. It was hard for me, but, I had to keep reminding myself, it was harder for you. What I was going through was nothing compared to your pain.
I took care of you, and I visited you every day. You were skeptical, not used to people being nice to you just for the hell of it, but some part of you recognized me. Just the way you did before.
It was still you in there. Undeniably you. I could never decide if that relieved the pain or made it worse.
Eventually, a few weeks before the end, I told you. For the first time, I told you. About what I am. About our lives together. I didn’t want you to be afraid to let go.
You didn’t believe me, which was to be expected. Thought I was crazy or making fun of you. So the next day I came back and fired a nail gun into my head. Then you believed me.
The next thing you said to me was, When we find each other again, you can’t tell me I was ever like this. And I tried to argue, but you insisted you wanted to forget. And then you said you wanted me to forget, too.
So I won’t. I won’t tell you about that life. Just know, I loved you then, every bit as much as I love you now. Every bit as much as I’ll always love you. I realize now how ashamed you were, and I wish I’d had the sense to tell you you didn’t have to be. No amount of suffering could ever make you less beautiful to me.
You died, and I got through it because – well, I got through it, because I really didn’t have much choice except to get through it. And I just kept clinging to the belief that I’d find you again, that we’d find each other again. That your next life would be better.
I was getting better at the whole grief thing. The first time I lost you, I plunged into suicidal depression for fifteen years. And that grief was still there. It still is. But though the grief lives in me, I no longer live in grief.
And I knew I’d find you again.
Now, the nineties. The nineties were interesting. For one thing, I got recruited by the I.S.I., or International Society of Immortals. Yes, that’s a thing. Everyone babies me a little, because I’m the only immortal in the I.S.I. who’s younger than three hundred. It’s really sort of patronizing.
But there are some big names: Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. Paul Mounet, a.k.a. Charlemagne. Tommy Wiseau. Weird Al. Lucy Liu. Oscar Isaac. Cher. A whole bunch of others who I’m probably forgetting. Immortality isn’t too rare an affliction.
Some of them went the Twilight Zone route, with a Faustian Bargain or a genie. Some of them are vampires or witches. Others, like me, were just born this way. Either way, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in eternity.
I learned some good tips on faking your death and changing your identity, which I decided it was probably time to do. I mean, I’d been working at the same hospital for about twenty years, with no signs of aging except some fake reading glasses and a touch of gray hair coloring around the temples.
So, I did the reasonable thing: I fell out a tenth story window. It’s weirdly cathartic, falling out a window. I highly recommend it.
The I.S.I. supplied the fake body for my funeral. Got me a fake birth certificate, fake bachelor’s degree, fake social security number. Even some fake family photos. Everything I’d need for my new, fake identity.
I relocated here with that fake new identity to start a real, new life. Started a real Ph.D. in psychology. Found you. The real you.
I don’t know if everyone gets reincarnated, but I believe everyone has a soul. I believe our souls are drawn together, like the ocean towards a full moon. And I believe we’ll always find each other, as surely as the tides.
It’s not an accident that I took you travelling so much, that I bought you so many gifts. Experience has taught me how short life can feel, and how fragile it can be. I wanted to make it great for you. Did I do a good job? I hope I did.
At the very least, you always seemed happy. I know I was happy. This has been the best one yet, and the longest. Ten years together ain’t bad, all things considered. And cancer, believe or not, isn’t the worst way I’ve seen you go.
Is that callous? Yeah, that’s probably callous. I’m sorry. Immortality can make people a bit insensitive, even if we’re really not trying to be. But hopefully you’ll forgive me by the time you’re born again.
Anyway, it’s worth waiting for, even if it never lasts long. You always seem to die so young. But what in life is meant to last long? We’re all dust, set ablaze by the sun. A life of any duration is a miraculous event.
I’m telling you this, my heart, my darling, because I don’t want you to be afraid. I want you to understand that it’s okay to let go.
Go to sleep, my darling. My ocean. I’ll find you when you wake up.
anonymous asked: What is your opinion on manic pixie dream girls and do you think they're a trope best avoided? I'm afraid my female protagonist will be criticized for being one even though she doesn't exist TO brighten a man's life, she just does bc she's fun?? it wasn't intentional. He likes her, but she doesn't act for his attention but rather acts to get closer to her own goals. I just don't want her to seem like an unimportant or bad protagonist for being 'quirky' and impulsive.
Manic pixie dream girls. I have some opinions on those.
For one thing, manic pixie dream girls, without the context of the stories they’ve been dumped in, are often wonderful. There’s nothing wrong with being quirky, energetic girl with an optimistic outlook, pastel-colored hair, and a weird fashion sense. In fact, I’d love to date one myself.
The real problem isn’t usually the aforementioned manic pixie, but the personality-impaired sadsack she’s usually dumped with. I love the ray of sunshine + total grump combo, but most of the men who are paired with manic pixies aren’t simply grumps. They’re misogynistic, boring, and unpleasant, with the personality of an empty shoe box.
So what can you do to prevent your poor manic pixie from being confined to a shoe box forever? Well, two things:
A) Make her love interest a good, interesting, lovable person.
This should go without saying, but a lot of romance authors didn’t get the memo. If your female protagonist is a quirky bundle of joy, the dude she ends up with should be at least as endearing.
That doesn’t mean he must be a manic pixie dreamboy, but he should be a rich, complex, and loving person. Just look at characters like Ben Wyatt from Parks and Rec, Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place, and Jake Peralta from Brooklyn 99 for inspiration.
B) Make sure your manic pixie has goals and flaws.
The first of which you’re already doing, so hats off to you! Be sure to make her a well-rounded person with bad habits, personal weaknesses, and past traumas that aren’t cute or quirky. This way, you can ensure that she’s her own person and not a fantasy for someone else.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
sapphicmadameumbralis asked: Do you have any advice on how to write dance scenes? I want to write a waltz scene, but I just can't figure out how to write it.
Dance scenes are fun. I always try to capture the energy and feeling of whatever music and movement is taking place. For example, here’s one I wrote for an upbeat, jazzy dance scene:
We fizzled together like champagne bubbles, energy crackling in the air. My clothes were damp and hot with sweat, the air around us too muggy, but I didn’t care. We were surfing on waves of trumpet music, beneath a thundering sky of drums.
If you notice, I’m not being too literal here; that is, I’m not describing exactly what the characters’ bodies are doing, or what the music is doing. If it went, A musician launched into a sick drum solo and I did some hip gyrations, it would likely sound sort of silly. Instead, I focus on the emotions of the characters, and try to make the reader feel what they’re feeling.
So for a waltz scene, I might write something like this:
She and the music were indivisible, both moving in seamless, swanlike glides over the marble floor. We were so close, I could feel the warmth of her breath on my neck, the mothlike flutter of her pulse. The rest of the room seemed so cold. I let her and the music take the lead, closed my eyes and let them carry me.
See what I mean? For dance scenes, particularly ones with emotional value, I focus on the internal rather than physical actions.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
About the Author
Brooksie C. Fontaine is an author and illustrator, currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing.