It’s what most people out side of horror think of when they hear the word, “horror.” In fact, it’s what a some people think of if they are in horror, as well. Because of this, the genre has a reputation for being all about the gross-out, the violent, and the inhumane. We have yet to make full-fledged effort to dissuade others from believing that is the case. Simply writing good horror stories should be enough, right?
Because of this, you see new people coming up through the ranks and believing they have to keep pushing the envelop on what a person can withstand while reading without getting so nauseated they expel their own viscera. What they aren’t learning is the effective way to craft gore and splatter.
The first step of writing gore it determining the level that you need. Not want, but need. There are a lot of stories that are just gore factories and the writer is having fun trying to think of new inventive ways to defile the human body. Really, they are only defiling the story for the reader. I will say, though, that there are stories that need all the gore that is in them. Offseason and the Mephistopolis trilogy needs everything in there, the stories wouldn’t be work if they were toned down any. But there are times where a bloody massacre or the pillaging of a corpse is more effective when just the action is suggested and not seen; one of the times where the “Show don’t Tell” rule takes a back seat.
But how do you make that distinction?
- Consider the story you want to tell: This is probably the main factor in determining the level of explicitness in a story. Gore is a flourish, stay true to the story and you’ll see how much is right, if any at all. Would “Call of Cthulhu” or “The Raven” still be the masterpieces they are if there was any gore involved? But if you are doing a story from the point of view from a monster, you would expect more visceral detail. Then you need to start thinking if the violence is a part of the themes and ideas of the story. If you are looking at something like the survival instincts of humans, that could be better candidate then the fear of clowns.
- Consider style: If your writing style is much more quiet and subversive, using more artful expressions, then a moment of gore is harder to pull off as the reader would be expect a different kind of writing and you will pull them out. If there is more simple and direct, it will be easier.
- Consider atmosphere: I think when a lot of writers are writing gore, they’re trying to write a terrifying atmosphere. Except, people have been writing strong, scary atmosphere before gore and splatter were common horror parlance. Before writing, go over what you’ve written and see if you strengthen the tangible dread of the piece, the effect will do what you are thinking the violence would do. I’m willing to say eight out of ten times it will. Make the setting, the mood, the emotion of the story haunt the thoughts of the reader first. If you create an affective atmosphere, any amount of gore used will be that more poignant.
The next step is the actual writing of the violence. Here it is worth repeating:
Gore is a flourish. It’s a privilege, not a right.
If you go into writing a horror story thinking, “I’m going to write the sickest story anyone has ever read, most likely you will, but it won’t necessarily be the best story.
- Point of view: It’s real easy, if you are enthusiastic about gore, to not think about who is viewing it and their reaction. You get sucked into the play of visceral vocabulary. The two people that would experience it intimately, and with that, the most detailed, are the victim and the assailant. No matter how large the spray of blood, the victim is going to experience more the actual physical feelings of the attack then sight and sound. But they can only experience so much before the brain shuts down to keep the trauma of the experience from shattering the mind. The assailant will experience the sights and sounds, but every attack is an emotional release of some kind. Explore those feels and the reasons for the attacks. It is also possible the point of view character is a bystander. That character will have an experience more like the assailant, only they would be trying to grasp for some sense of reason to explain what is taking place. In that way, the bystander is a mixed viewpoint of the victim and assailant.
- Word choice: Like barrels of red dyed corn syrup, using the same words over and over can make your moments of splatter feel less effective. It is also very easy to go over to the scatological side of the language that, while you can write anyway you want, there are words that in the eyes and minds of many, cheapen the story being told. Dictionaries, especially medical dictionaries, thesauruses, and poetry are keys to creating artful ways to describe the violence you are describing. Read, read, read. Make word lists. Get a notebook and spend sometime trying to find new ways to describe and visualize the gore. All of these will be great recourses not only on the rough draft of the story, but in the editing and finalizing last draft.
- Read books with violence and gore not in the horror genre: Mystery books and thriller books are great. Poe pretty much created the mystery genre and it is a close cousin to horror. Mystery takes gore in the serious way that horror has forgotten sometimes is our responsibility. Read what you can, use them as textbooks on new ways to approach the violence in your story. Why? If you read some the books out there, they are just as violent and gore as horror novel, but people still think highly of those stories. Nothing is treated like a parlor trick or a sophomoric prank on the reader.
I use gore and splatter like most of us, and it takes time to refine it’s use in a story so that it’s as affective as possible. It is also one of the main deterrents of our genre. I’m still learning to craft my horror so that even the non-conventional horror reader will enjoy it. It is something that I will always need to work on and all writers need to. Writing is a craft that gets better with time, practice, and experience and there is never a ceiling to how well one can write.