Guest Blog: How to hook your reader
Guest Blog: How to hook your reader by SL Grey
We were asked to share a few tips on how to make horror writing more believable, but it’s less realist credibility than a suspension of disbelief we aim for when we write. That way, readers can trust what they’re being shown and can get drawn into the story. That’s when we know our writing is working – when we hook the reader in emotionally and physically. These are some of the strategies we try:
Do the research
Since coffee-swilling writers locked in small garrets don’t make for the most exciting protagonists, at some stage we all have to go beyond the famous advice to ‘write what you know’. In The Mall we drew on our shared fear of shopping malls and consumerism, and in The Ward we mined our collective experiences at the wrong end of a scalpel, but when it came to our third novel, The New Girl, we chose to delve into topics that were way beyond our personal experience, including paedophilia and the phenomenon of reborn dolls.
And for Under Ground, our fourth novel, we took an almighty leap out of our comfort zone. It meant doing a great deal of research on the setting (a luxury survival bunker in Maine), various disaster scenarios (some of which will definitely have us blacklisted with the CIA), as well as imagining the lives of a group of survivalist characters who came from a vast array of different backgrounds from ours, and all of whom had different motivations for investing in the end of the world. It’s ideal to travel to the location you’ve chosen to write about, but this isn’t always possible with a writer’s budget and time constraints, especially if it’s halfway across the world, so reading local books, watching documentaries about the place and people helps build a picture of an unfamiliar place, as does a virtual visit with Google Earth.
We also sought out experts in the area we were writing about and were surprised by just how generous people are with their time. Most people just want to be asked to share what they know. We spoke at length with an architect who advised us on a possible layout for the building, while a security expert and ex-mercenary shared insider info about everything from automatic weapons to the type of knife one of our more gung-ho characters might use. We read several online accounts of the prepping philosophy, as well as working through many documentaries.
But … after doing all that research, you need to be selective with it. Too much information can become boring and get in the way of the story – fiction readers dread the ‘info-dump’. In the end, only a tiny portion of our new arsenal of facts made it into the book.
Let characters live
If you’ve written a detailed synopsis or plan before starting the book, it’s tempting to force characters to stick to pre-determined actions to keep the plot moving forward. But many writers talk about characters having their own minds and taking on a life of their own in the story. It’s a cliché of writing-process columns for a reason. Characters really do reveal themselves and become clearer to you as you write. Whether you believe it’s a mystical process or sheer psychology, if you force a character into a situation that clashes with his or her internal motivation, you might lose your reader’s trust and belief in the story. Don’t be afraid to change those early plans. Keep reworking until your characters’ motivations and reactions are internally consistent.
‘She was now really really scared’, though tempting to write, doesn’t engage the reader much. Don’t just focus on the mental effects of fear, but the physical as well – for example, the taste of adrenaline, the speeding pulse – your readers will find themselves breathing faster, their hearts racing if you suggest it to them. We want them to have a physical reaction to the story, just as much as they’re looking for excitement.
Also remember that different characters’ reactions to fear will differ. Some will get snappish and defensive, others will become withdrawn and introspective. Some will give up. Know your characters and be consistent.
Less is more
H.P. Lovecraft, who knew a thing or two about scaring the crap out of people, said: ‘Never state a horror when it can be suggested.’ Over-describing can blanch a scene of its power. The boogeyman is always scarier when you can’t see all of him. If you leave gaps and dark corners for your readers to imagine their way into, they’ll fill those spaces with their own deepest fears. You’ll be using their fears to make the book more engaging and invigorating than you could do alone, sinking your hook into them deeper than you could ever reach yourself.
Under Ground by S L Grey, published by Pan Macmillan, £12.99