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Writing Horror Stories
That Sell

by D. J. Herda

Everybody likes a good ghost story.  Everyone likes to be frightened nearly to death by a good vampire tale.  Everybody likes to watch a good horror flick. 

And that's good.

But what, exactly, does a "good" horror story mean?  And how can you set about writing a horror story--regardless of its subgenre--that is actually good enough to get published? 

I've thought about this for a while now, and this is what I've come up with.

1.) Make it unique.  If you want to write about the reanimation of dead tissue, forget about the obvious.  You can write until you're blue in the face, but if your story is a recalculated telling of the story of Frankenstein, I'll tell you right now, it won't work.  Mary Shelley did it par excellence long ago.  How can you expect to compete with perfection?

2.) Make it universal.  A story that affects twenty percent of the population might get you a contract with a publisher that pays an advance of 20 percent of what the Big Boys pay (if that), but even that isn't likely.  Appeal to 80 percent of the population, and you're talking great chances for finding a publisher and for making big bucks.  Remember John Russo's Night of the Living Dead?

3.) Make it believable.  Tell the tale of a one-armed, one-eyed cyclops come down from the heavens to make life miserable for planet earth, and you're going to have a hard sell.  Tell the tale of an average Joe (the Plumber or otherwise) who has something very small go very, very wrong, and you're likely to win over converts from the start.  Remember Edgar Allen Poe's Telltale Heart?

4.) Include a familiar.  In witchcraft, a "familiar" is a being that, in everyday life, is safe, sane, and unthreatening.  Most common familiars during the Salem Witch Trials were cats, thought to be the cavorting consorts of witches and warlocks.  A familiar makes everything seem more real (who actually knows what a cat does after you turn in for the evening?), which makes everything seem more believable.  A familiar can actually do most of the dirty work in your tale, leaving the more easily identifiable "human" element of your story to bond with the reader.  Remember Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles?

5.) Be frightening.  And I mean unbelievably frightening.  The terror need not be physical to make a horror story work: psychological horror sells well, too, and is often easier to create.  In fact, because of the obscure workings of the human mind, psychological terror is often the most frightening kind.  Remember Stephen King's Christine?

Writing horror stories can be immensely satisfying and extremely lucrative, as any horror genre practitioner will say.  But if you, as a new, untested writer, hope to have a chance at success in a weak economic climate and glutted literary environment, you'll have to take that extra step or two toward making your property stand out from the thousands of others currently making the rounds.

Keep these few points in mind, and you'll be well on your way toward success.



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