Horror Writing 101 – How Much Information
Now, part 6 is about too much information. In the first three parts we looked into how you use information to create various types of fear responses in people. Then we went into using wrongness juxtaposed (contrasted) with realism.
In this segment we will be going back to information control, because it is vital. I have gone into this topic already, but it bears repeating and expanding.
Controlling information is vital to horror. Every piece of information you give away should be designed to generate a fear response of one kind or another. Which is scarier to be in? A well lit, nice looking house? Or a run down, dark, spooky looking house? There is a lot of information even in that. Those two notions bring images to your mind of a nice house, and a spooky house.
Feelings you have for them.
Both can be used to create horror, just in different ways. One by taking the familiar and comforting, and subverting it. The other by placing the audience into a situation they don’t want to be in from the very start.
When you give away information of any kind, ask yourself these questions:
Who is the information targeted at? Audience, character, both?
Does this information have the potential to create unease, dread, fright, alarm, or terror in it’s target?
If not, is it really necessary to the narrative? (IE, what purpose does it serve if it’s not meant to create fear.)
Can I achieve the same result with more or less information? (Why give away twice as much information, when half as much will do the job? Use it in two halves to make the information work harder for you. On the other hand, giving more details at certain moments might be scarier.)
Can I achieve a better result with more or less information? (Seeing a glimpse of a monster in one scenario may be way more scary than seeing all of it, but seeing all of it may be far more scary in another scenario. In another scenario seeing the monster might become over saturation and kill the tension.)
Am I trying to build up tension, or is this a pull the trigger moment? (My rule of thumb is less information for building up, more for pulling the trigger on a scare.)
Consider, you have a character in your story, movie or game, or even the people in your spook house, in a dark hallway. A good place to creep people out, for reasons discusses in prior segments. What is scarier? Having a frighting thing come into full view for a lengthy period of time, or a partial/fast glimpse?
Obviously seeing it, whatever it happens to be, either partially or fully, but so fast there is no time for the mind to fully process the information, is scarier. Why? Because the longer you give people to look at something, the more they can examine it. The more they can examine it, the less scary it becomes. This may not be true of a character in a book or movie. They are “actually there”, with it. But the audience isn’t. They are watching it, or reading about it. And the more they know, the less scary it will be.
Which is where doubt comes into play. Even after you give them information, you can always work to make them doubt it. Which takes away certainty, and that creates fear.
This is why balance between the unknown and the known is so important. Knowing about things takes a lot of the anxiety away. If you can see it, you have information. You know where it is. You have more of an understanding of what it is. Which means the higher thinking parts of your brain can take over and start planning what you are going to do.
Now, in a book or even movie this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if your goal is to create anxiety in the reader/viewer over what will happen to a character, this is a way to do that. But you need to be sure that is the type of fear you are going for.
Since games are interactive, the idea is to immerse into the game. To feel as if you are the one in it. You still get the anxiety over what happens next going on, but it will be lessened by the thinking about how to beat the challenge.
Which is where a lot of horror games fall flat. Get killed once and you know what will happen, and then it just becomes a game again. Immersion lost. After that you just keep dying till you finally beat it. In fact the “beat the current challenge” aspect of games in general can seriously impact immersion in a horror game.
When trying to make a horror game it is vital to balance your desire to create thrilling game play and not killing the mood with countless deaths, and gimmicky puzzle solving. The key is that you need to create the FEEL of danger, the FEELING they could be killed at any time. You don’t actually have to kill them, not even once. And in fact, they will have a more sustained horror experience if they don’t die.
The same goes for books and movies. Haunted house attractions are pretty much all about jumpscares, so a lot of this stuff really doesn’t apply much to them.
This is where realism comes into play. Be it games, or the characters in a story or movie, the key is to keep things feeling realistic and natural. If you can successfully mesh your game challenges into a natural, realistic feeling chain of events it will make it a lot easier for players to stay immersed in the game. It does apply to other media as well.
When you write a scenario does it feel like something that could happen, or something you stuck in? Yes, everything is something you stuck in, but there are ways to write things so that they feel natural… and ways that feel like you are writing everything. It’s just a story, we don’t care if you notice the person behind the curtain rod, because we never bothered to put an actual curtain up.
Ask yourself these questions when coming up with scenarios. (This is a good thing to do for ALL writing actually. Not just horror.)
Would someone actually do this?
Or am I forcing a character to do something to serve the story?
Does this make sense in general?
Does it make sense in the context of what has happened already?
Is this a plausible event?
Even if it is plausible, just how far does it stretch believability by it’s self?
When stacked with other events, does this feel like a set up?
What are the odds of this specific series of events happening?
Does this scenario require justification to work? Or does it stand on it’s own?
I will give you an example of what I mean, although I already wrote about this in another post, it works here pretty well.
I had the misfortune to see a couple of episodes of the walking dead. In the episode in question two characters, I believe one is called Daryl, and the other was an older woman with short hair, were walking down a high way.
They have a lengthy conversation, and have presumably been walking down this street for a while. Since it’s in the middle of a city and is an elevated highway.
Suddenly they come across a van that has partially knocked through the side of the highway and the front end is hanging off.
Despite the absence of any undead up till this point, there are suddenly a few milling about a ways away from them.
For some reason the two stop to investigate the van.
In the mere moments they are dicking around in the van, a bunch of the zombies manage to get close enough to start attacking them. Much blood and gore, then they are overwhelmed and are forced into the van.
Which they tip over the side, and it crashes down wheels first.
Now, if the people writing this had asked my simple questions, this moronic scene would never have gotten past the writers room, let alone been shot.
Would someone actually do this? No. They had no reason to check in the van, had in fact passed other cars without checking them, and that was when they had no obvious threat. If they really cared about supplies that much, they would be checking every vehicle they pass. Which also answers, does it make sense in context of what has already happened.
Is this plausible? No. It’s the worst kind of contrived set up. They just happen to come across this van, at the same time they just happen to get attacked by zombies, and just happen to decide to check it out, and just happen to somehow get attacked by enough zombies to force them into the van, also the zombies just happen to go from several yards away and very few to many very close, so that the only means of escape is rocking the van off the side of the highway. Then there is the issue of ignoring basic physics with the van landing on it’s wheels.
So yes, defense of this scenario requires special pleading. IE, it’s just a tv show. Or, it’s about zombies so nothing has to be realistic.
They they praise the show for being such a realistic portrayal of people in a zombie apocalypse. Because that’s not hypocritical at all.
It’s supposed to be thrilling and scary, but unless you’re a moron it’s just an obvious set up. Lazy writing by people who clearly know their audience is too stupid to notice, or too apathetic to care.
Oh I see… I looked it up. They checked out the van because it had white crosses taped onto the windows, which relates to something else. But that really doesn’t do anything but make it even more contrived. What are the odds of a van belonging to the people they were looking for being up there like that? And what did they hope to accomplish by looking inside it? A signed map telling them right where to go?
The point is that it’s not scary at all. It’s silly. Which would be okay for something like an Evil Dead style horror comedy, but walking dead is supposed to be super serious and realistic. Which just pushed it into farce.
You could fix the scene pretty easily. First off, the stunt was stupid, so that needs to go. But we can create a similar stunt that is more believable.
You start with them walking down the highway, they have to destroy an occasional zombie. They are in an area that is dangerous, but so far nothing they can’t deal with. The duo come to an off ramp and there is a crowd of undead ahead of them on the high way.
Then they try to sneak to the ramp, but something makes a noise and brings the zombies after them. The zombies are closer but slow, so you get a running battle where they have to deal with more and more zombies, till they are getting crowded. Then they come to the van, which is parked at the top of the ramp, on the incline, but with the breaks on.
They are forced to get into the van. They do.
They get into the front, strap in, take the breaks off, put it into neutral, and hope they can get it moving. At first it seems the zombies are going to get them, then there is a sound of metal giving way and it starts moving. The driver steers it, and they start to pull away from the zombies. Then it picks up speed, and they end up flying down the ramp with no breaks and plow through a divider, and whatever else they feel like sticking at the bottom of the ramp.
They get away from the wreckage, and get into a building, then one of the vehicles from the hospital pulls up and investigates the wreak, but they get scared off by the zombies coming down the ramp. The two manage to sneak off into the city.
See. There is only one contrivance in that scenario. That one of the hospital cars would be close by. By having them deal with the occasional zombie while they are walking and having their discussion, that keeps the appearance of the horde later from feeling like a set up. They come to an area that is dangerous, and try to deal with it in a sensible way, but an accidental noise gets the attention of the zombies. Anyone who has ever tried to not make noise knows you always seem to knock something over or bang into something.
The situation forces them into the van, which at first seems rusted in place, but then the breaks give way and you get your stunt. Which is far more believable. A nice long ramp would give enough time to build up some momentum, plenty enough to make the decent harrowing, and bang them up with crashes.
You accomplish all the same things, in about the same amount of time, and without it feeling phony. I did a better job of controlling the release of information. And everything else for that matter. Now if I can come up with that rewrite in just a few minutes, why couldn’t the people being paid to work on the show do it?
Because they are lazy.
If you really want to scare people you have to be careful about things like piling on, and obvious set ups. When things start becoming nonsensical it makes it less scary.
Unless you are intentionally being unrealistic because it part of the story. But even then, just because you are doing a nightmare, coma, alternate reality, sucked into hell, etc type of thing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask yourself the questions. You simply apply them to the internal logic of what you have been creating. It is tempting to take those types of scenarios as carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want, because… anything goes right…
Does it make it scary, or just weird?
Does it work with what you have already been doing, or is it going to clash?
Do you want it to clash?
If so, go back to, Does it make it scary, or just weird?
When people see/read this, is it going to mess with their heads, or just pull them out of the movie/story/game?
Going overboard on wrongness can quickly make things go from scary to just strange. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a strange movie, not scary at all. Of course we know the reason for why things are wrong, which is information that changes the tone totally.
Put yourself into the shoes of your audience. You have to consider what will be going through their minds. What questions will they ask? If they start wondering why you wrote something the way you did, they aren’t thinking about the media in question, they are wondering what you were thinking when you made it.
Because I said so, is a lame excuse. We know it when we are kids and adults pull it on us. So what makes you think it’s any less lame an excuse for writing something stupid?
You want their minds on the material at all times.
That’s why franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street got a reputation for being more corny and goofy than scary. The first couple of movies are usually pretty scary, but then you have to start wondering things like… Why doesn’t the government send a team of special forces operatives in the deal with Jason? Which happens in Jason Goes to Hell, but of course that one quickly goes from sensible to silly too.
The smart thing to do, would be to capture him and lock him up somewhere he can’t get out. Encase him in cement. Yes, I know… there is no movie if you do something that makes sense and get rid of Jason like that. But these are the things that cross people’s minds, and when they do it becomes impossible to get scared. At least on a psychological level. The kind that sticks with you. You might get viscerally scared, or just grossed out more likely, but that wont stick with you or leave any kind of impression.
Why? Because local authorities suppress information and make sure people think it’s just an urban legend. They figure the occasional group of dead idiots that ignore the warnings to stay away are easier to deal with, than the scandals that will arise if it becomes “real news”.
Or something like that. It doesn’t take much sometimes to nip a problem with believability in the bud. You figure out the things that can come across as being too convenient, too much of a set up, and either give or take away information to make it work.
So the lessons I want you to take from this segment of the series are that you need to be careful with how much info you give away, and what you do give away should seem as natural as possible.
You just have to work out the sweet spot for what information to give away, and how much at any given time. Get it right and it adds to the scares, get it wrong and it can kill any tension dead. Pun intended. Get it very wrong and you can switch from scary to silly in a heart beat.