Writing Fear

Guest Blogger: Weston Ochse

I’ve been a horror author for about 12 years now. I never started out to be a horror author, but once I started being published, that’s what people started to call me. Which was cool. As long as there’s the word author at the end the label, I’m pretty much okay with whatever someone wants to call me. I suppose one of the reasons I was tagged as a horror author was because I was able to write about fear. I was good at it. I could scare people and it wasn’t that hard. I’d take the mundane, create normal characters, make readers like them, then do something to them.

And it worked. I developed a following. But the weird thing is that after awhile I became immune to it. You see, when I first started writing, once I would scare myself, I realized that I’d be able to scare other people. But the more I wrote, the less I scared myself. I got to the point when I’d write something thinking it would be scary, but not really knowing if it would be scary. I wrote out of pure confidence and trust in my art. Frankly, I wrote out with my fingers crossed. And eventually, my confidence in my ability to write fear began to ebb.

Then with my fifth novel, my latest novel, I got my biggest contract. It was a mass market paperback to be released on three continents. Empire of Salt is a zombie novel and interestingly enough, with more than a hundred short stories published, I’d only written about zombies once before a long long long time ago. Zombies were never my forte. In fact, I might not have ever written a zombie novel had the publisher not asked me to. Do you know why? I didn’t particularly find zombies scary. But I’d come to learn that even if they weren’t scary to me, it didn’t mean that they weren’t scary to the world at large.

So I wrote the novel. There’s a way to write tension, and I wrote it. There’s a way to put characters in conflict and I did it. There’s a way to devise the monstrosity of the zombie threat and I devised it. It didn’t scare me to write it. When it was all said and done, I didn’t think it was scary.  I thought it was a good novel, for sure, but I wrote it for a large audience and felt that it was pretty tame.

But you know what? Empire of Salt scared the hell out of people. There are readers out there who can’t get past chapter four. There are some who can’t get past chapter one. How the heck did that happen?

Then I figured it out. I’d been too close to it. Those who read horror on a regular basis might be too close to it too. They understand the mechanisms we use. They depend on them, but never really become scared. Those who don’t read horror on a regular basis, say 80-85% of the readers out there do not have the same personal relationship with horror as me and my followers do. Regular readers, those who might read a Stephen King novel or a Dean Koontz novel once a year get involved in a story and pop-zoom-pow they get the Stuttgart scared out of them.  And let me tell you, by all reports, very few readers of Empire of Salt had any Stuttgart left in them when they read the last few lines. It was awesome.

You see, I’d been writing fear all the time, even when I thought I wasn’t writing fear. It was just that my  fans  and I had become a little immune to it. Like roller coasters. We love the ride. We scream like mad. But we weren’t actually scared. We just enjoyed the thrill of it. And now, to have a whole new slew of readers on three continents who weren’t used to riding the horror rollercoaster get actually scared… well, that reinvigorated me and told me that everything I was doing was right.

Writing fear is just like writing everything else I suppose. You can get too close to it and no longer be scared. But the learning point is that even if you aren’t scared, it doesn’t mean that what you’ve written isn’t scary. It just means that you have to keep doing it the way you know how to do it and count on it being scary. You have to have faith. You have to believe even when you have no evidence of it. Like ghosts or demons or zombies. They’re out there even if you don’t have any proof of it.

So what kind of writing scares you? What gets your fear going? Or are you like me, not a whole lot scares you?

Weston Ochse is multiple award-winning author and screenwriter. He lives in Southern Arizona, where he spends his days racing tarantula wasps, baking in the noon day sun, and walking along the border. Visit him online here.

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5 Comments:

  1. Great blog! I’m a psychological horror person myself, I guess, not someone into the gore. James Patterson or King or Koontz are all my style when I want to be mesmerized and terrorized. Never want to look in the closet after that, or under the bed for sure! Thanks for the insights.

    • Babs,

      I’m pretty much the same way. I do very little gore. In fact, my zombie book is much different because it’s not about the zombie, but rather the people and how they react to the zombie.

      -Weston

  2. Not a whole lot scares me when I write or read. Sometimes it might stir up other emotions like sadness, and I found myself crying while writing a particularly painful scene because I felt bad for the protag. Now horror movies have that effect of frightening me depending on the images they use. For example, when I read King’s Pet Semetary, I found it a great read, an exciting one with the potential to scare. But when I saw it at the movies, the images frightened me so much I got up and left.

    Thank you for a great post!
    Barbara (aka Popple)

    • Popple,

      interesting. I’ve heard form a lot of people about little Gage and the scenes from the book. I found them terrifying. Then again, the movie was pretty scary too. I think they both worked because it was about a normal family in extraordinary circumstances, which is something most all of us can relate to.

      -Weston

  3. The everlasting fear, the fear that pops up unbidden, is the fear that a horrible thing is happening or has happened and no one believes me. That I can trust no one and am in it alone. The betrayal by those most trusted is part of this sinister terror. There have been many movies and books with this theme and it is always frightening to me. Character development is of course what makes this work. But even poorly done, the theme resonates.

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