Voices of Horror
By Tim Waggoner
One of the first – and perhaps most important – choices that authors have to make about our stories is which viewpoint to use: first, second, or third person. We tend to have our favorites. I write with a close third person limited point of view most often, but I’ll use first or second if I think the story calls for it. Each voice has its benefits and limitations, of course, but there are special opportunities in them for writers of horror fiction. Selecting the right voice for your tale of terror can make the difference between a run-of-the-mill story and one that’s truly special.
Perhaps my favorite definition of point of view comes from yourdictionary.com: “The POV of a story is how the writer wants to convey the experience to the reader.” I like this definition because of the word experience. All fiction is about a character’s experience, but since horror is an emotion, the way we portray our characters’ experience of horror is more than merely one aspect of the story – it is the story.
Because of this, you might think first person would be the most natural point of view for conveying horror. After all, it has the storyteller’s authority. The narrator has been there, done that, and survived to tell the tale (although perhaps not without some serious physical and psychological damage incurred along the way.) A first-person narrator in a horror story can tell us exactly how he or she felt when tangling with the Dark Force they encountered. Their account should be able to put us in the moment to experience the terror alongside them. Except it doesn’t always work that way because a first-person narrative can undercut suspense in some ways. For one thing, we know the narrator lived, so we aren’t worried about his or her survival. (And any first-person narrative that ends with the character dying is cheap and unsatisfying. How is the dead narrator relating this story? We know the character is most likely sane (at least relatively so), or else he or she wouldn’t be able to recount their experience so clearly and in such vivid detail. And while it might seem counterintuitive, there’s also a distance between the reader and the story in a first-person narrator. For the narrator, the story occurred in the past, perhaps a long time ago. Regardless of how hard a writer tries to invest a story with immediacy, there’s always a sense that the narrator is removed from the events. This sense of distance can be used to great psychological effect, as in a story like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this first-person story, told by a madman, we are invited into his deeply disturbed mind bit by bit, resulting in an intimacy that wouldn’t be possible with any other point of view. And of course, first person point of view allows you to present a character who’s an unreliable narrator because they’re lying, withholding information from readers, or isn’t quite as sane as he or she would have us believe. But if you’re not writing psychological horror, the detachment created by first person can make events seem less immediate.
There are a few other drawbacks – or at least considerations – to take into account when using first person. There’s the extra suspension of disbelief a first-person narrative requires of readers. How much time has passed since the narrator experienced these events? Why is he or she telling this story now? In what way is it being told – written or spoken? Who is the story being recounted to? How does the narrator recall events in the most minute detail when ordinary people can’t remember clearly what they ate for breakfast yesterday? It’s for these reasons, and ones I mentioned above, that horror editors often prefer writers avoid using first person.
We’ll skip second person for a moment and move on to third. Third person omniscient – when the narrator is the writer him or herself and can jump from one character’s mind to another within the same scene – can create a huge distance between characters and readers. Because readers can experience the story through any character’s point of view at any moment, readers are prepared to be pulled out of a point of view at any time, preventing them from attaching too deeply to any one character. Plus, writers who use third person omniscient often remain outside their characters’ heads, denying readers access to their characters’ inner experiences, experiences which are key to creating successful horror. Third person omniscient can work if a writer focuses primarily on one character in a scene and doesn’t switch points of view too many times or for too long, but it takes a very deft hand to pull this off. Stephen King does it exceptionally well, writing with a firm storyteller’s voice (his own) and letting us experience what his characters think and feel without switching viewpoints too fast or too often, giving his work the feeling of third person limited but with the narrative advantages of third person omniscient.
Third person limited tends to be the most commonly used point of view in horror fiction. This is when a story follows one particular character (whether for the entire time or portions of a story), and readers are privy to his or her thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations, as events progress. It’s as if there’s a camera mounted on a character’s shoulder, allowing readers to see and hear everything the character does, and there’s a cable running from that camera into the base of the character’s skull, allowing us to access his or her interior world. The story moves back and forth between the exterior and interior as it goes, allowing us to not only empathize with the character but also to imagine being that character. And it’s one of the weird quirks of the English language that even though third person is usually is written in past tense, readers experience the story as if it’s happening right now, giving it an immediacy that first person sometimes lacks.
Since the character isn’t telling his or her story in third person, anything could happen to them – including death – which ramps up the suspense. And while individual scenes might focus on one character, and often do, the entire story might present different scenes from different characters points of view, allowing a threat to seem even more dangerous as it affects multiple characters in different ways, allowing you to maximize the horror in your story, especially if it’s a novel. The point of view of the Dark Force, assuming it has one, can be presented as well, although it’s best to do this sparingly. The more familiar readers are with the Dark Force, the less mysterious and dangerous it will seem to them. Because of its versatility and effect on readers, third person limited is the point of view preferred by most editors and readers.
I’ve saved second person for last because it’s not often used in fiction. Readers find it off putting for various reasons, but the biggest one is that the author is constantly telling them they’re a different person doing things that they aren’t doing. It creates a strange sense of detachment and cognitive dissonance which makes readers uncomfortable – which is exactly why I think it’s a viable point of view for horror fiction, especially horror that skews more toward the weird and surreal. Second person point of view works best with present tense verbs, creating a narrative immediacy that’s at odds with the disconnected feel of second person. As with first person, writers are limited to a single point of view with second person, but I think this is a strength for the viewpoint in horror. As readers experience the story, they expect to get to know the main character and identify with him or her. But second person’s chilly detachment keeps readers at arm’s length from the story, discomfiting them even more. Second person seems to work best at shorter lengths, perhaps because most readers aren’t used to it or because readers tire of the cognitive dissonance that the point of view creates. I think it can work at novel length too, but I’ve found that the longer a second-person story goes on, the more I adjust to the point of view and the alienated I feel from the text, robbing the point of view of one of its prime effects.
I have yet to try second person point of view for a novel, but I’ve used it numerous times in my short fiction. One such story – “How to be a Horror Writer” – was even nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. When it comes to marketability, though, second person point of view is risky. I once submitted a second-person story titled “Ghost in the Graveyard” to the legendary writer and editor Charles L. Grant for an anthology called Gothic Ghosts. He rejected it, saying, “This is a hell of a story, but I’m not sure this is the way to tell it.” (I eventually sold the story to the small-press magazine All Hallows.) Years later I met Charlie in person at a World Horror Convention, and he still remembered my story, and he was still vexed about why he liked it so much even though he wasn’t sure about the point of view I’d used. The story stuck in his mind because of the voice I’d used, but he hadn’t published it for the same reason. As I said earlier, second person is a risk. It can create memorable fiction, but fiction that may appeal only to a smaller audience.
Can you mix the different points of view? Sure, but I’d do so in a novel or long novella instead of a short story. You need room to develop the different points of view in your story. It helps readers if you have a clear reason for mixing the voices and if you provide a structure to help guide them through your story, alternating chapters written in first person with ones written in third, for example. But remember that a lot of agents, editors, and readers are very conservative when it comes to the fiction they prefer, and they might find such point-of-view mixing even more off putting than second person used by itself.
In the end, which point of view you use for your horror fiction will be determined by your preferences and the demands of each individual story. But if you aren’t sure which to use, try them all. Write a few paragraphs of your story using each point of view and see which seems the most effective to you. Just remember: horror happens inside our characters, so whichever point of view helps you get there – and more importantly, gets readers there – is always the right one.
Critically-acclaimed author Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and he’s the author of a book on writing horror fiction called Writing in the Dark. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award and been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Scribe Award, and the Splatterpunk Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.
Writing in the Dark
In this comprehensive textbook devoted to the craft of writing horror fiction, award-winning author Tim Waggoner draws on thirty years’ experience as a writer and teacher. Writing in the Dark offers advice, guidance, and insights on how to compose horror stories and novels that are original, frightening, entertaining, and well-written.
Waggoner covers a wide range of topics, among them why horror matters, building viable monsters, generating ideas and plotlines, how to stylize narratives in compelling ways, the physiology of fear, the art of suspense, avoiding clichés, marketing your horror writing, and much more. Each chapter includes tips from some of the best horror professionals working today, such as Joe Hill, Ellen Datlow, Joe R. Lansdale, Maurice Broaddus, Yvette Tan, Thomas Ligotti, Jonathan Maberry, Edward Lee, and John Shirley. There are also appendices with critical reflections, pointers on the writing process, ideas for characters and story arcs, and material for further research.
Writing in the Dark derives from Waggoner’s longtime blog of the same name. Suitable for classroom use, intensive study, and bedside reading, this essential manual will appeal to new authors at the beginning of their career as well as veterans of the horror genre who want to brush up on their technique.
From Raw Dog Screaming Press, it published September 16, 2020. For more information or to order go to www.rawdogscreaming.com, purchase at usual online retailers, or order from your local bookstore.
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