By Travis Gibb
November 26, 2023
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Long before the now defunct Comic Code Authority was slapping their seal on funny books left and right, the medium was no stranger to the macabre story telling of horror. Spinner racks were jam-packed with titles like Witches Tale, Chamber of Chills, and The Haunt of Fear. Even now, the modern day comic book reader can still find a plethora of spooky graphic novels at their local comic shops. From The Autumnal to The Walking Dead, this sequential art form remains a breeding ground for horror stories, but beware! Before you set out to write your next hair-raising script, heed the following tips, if you dare.
First warning, be mindful of clichés. The horror genre probably has the most overused themes among all of the storytelling categories. For example, a group of young and sexy college students pick up a hitchhiker during a road trip then shockingly everyone dies but the virgin coed. It's been done before to some extent and can cause your story to get lost in a sea of similar plots. So how do you avoid horror clichés? My suggestion is to stick with writing what you know. Pull from your own life experiences and what scares you the most. Draw upon something unique that happened in your own existence to maintain an organic and original idea.
That’s not to say that these clichés don’t serve their own necessary purpose in horror stories. After all, people come back to their favorite types of subgenres for a reason. For example, if someone is a fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there’s a good chance they could also enjoy Stake. This is something to consider down the road when it comes to promoting your comic book. What does it compare to and what sets it apart? It's okay to have a short list of titles that are similar to your own, but you don’t want it to be a carbon copy. You could try flipping a cliché to work in your best interest. What if the hitchhiker was trying to escape from a car full of rabid Ivy Leaguers? A little twist on a popular notion can make all the difference!
Second warning, understand the difference between scaring your audience and grossing them out. It all depends on what type of emotional reaction you want to have on the reader. Do you want to give them goosebumps or simply cause them to hurl? One of these effects will resound with the reader long after they’ve finished your comic book. I’m more likely to take someone’s suggestion on a new title if they described their experience as “spine-chilling" rather than calling it “revolting.” Keep in mind, that’s only my own personal preference. There’s a market for everything, including the subject matter that’ll make one toss their cookies.
As long as it is integral to the story you are trying to tell, don’t avoid disturbing themes. Graphic descriptions of blood and guts are horror writers’ tools. However, they should be used reasonably and with vigilance. Before you go for the goriest kill you can think of, ask yourself if the overall plot will be hindered without it. One of the world’s most renowned horror writers of our time, Stephen King, has a great quote from his book, Danse Macabre (1981) regarding using extreme elements in his writing: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” That’s coming from one of the living legends of horror!
...understand the difference between scaring your audience and grossing them out. It all depends on what type of emotional reaction you want to have on the reader.
Third and final warning, know the genre in which you are writing. This applies not only to horror, but writing in general. And how do you do that? By reading! This should go without saying, but oftentimes, writers claim they don’t have time to read. Maybe they only read writing resources or stick to the genres in which they’re trying to become experts, but it's a good rule of thumb for writers to read through a wide range of material. By doing so, you not only avoid telling a story that has already been done, you’re also, simultaneously, studying how it was done before. Think of every writers’ work as a showcase of their process. They put on display how each handles dialogue, develops a character, sets a scene, and lands an ending.
Of course, it helps to know horror if that’s the genre your story is claiming to fall into. Make sure your weekly pulls include a couple of frightening reads peppered in with the rest. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s no shortage of horror comic books in the industry. If you’re writing a zombie story then you should read up on a good amount of titles about the undead. The more comics you can consume about reanimated corpses, the more your story will benefit. Think of it as drawing yourself directions across a war torn battlefield littered with explosive booby traps. You’ll know the areas where it's okay to walk and the places you should avoid. Then, as you make the slow journey stepping over cold, dead bodies, you’ll eventually find a spot and think to yourself, “I don’t think anyone has been here before.” When you discover that place, write it down!
Now, it's time for you to bury yourself in your own horror comic book script. Prior to putting pen to paper, remember to do your research. Avoid clichés, don’t jump to the gore, and do a deep dive of reading across the spectrum of genres. Pull from my suggested warnings as you see fit. Do I take my own advice? Not always. However, the best experiences I’ve had in writing are those humbling mistakes that happen from time to time. Being a writer is scary enough, especially when it's you alone in the dark with your writing pad, so trust your instincts. That terrifying plot could be lurking right around the corner.
*Jonathan Hedrick is an active member of the Horror Writers Association.