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Wednesday, 2 October 2013

How gruesome is too gruesome?

Horror-writing tips
Mary Twomey

In my opinion, if the horror serves a purpose, then it’s the right amount. If you’re just being gross to shock us, let’s get real for a minute. We live in the post-Tarantino era. Most of us just sigh at the tedium of violence for shock value.

How can you tell the difference? Ask yourself the following questions: Does the vicious bloodbath serve a purpose? Is it there to move the plot forward? Does it give us a greater insight into our hero or our villain? If the answer to at least one of these questions is yes, then the gore serves a purpose, and therefore, should not be cut. So long as your novel or movie has the appropriate filters attached (i.e. – “contains adult content”), then censoring yourself will do your audience a disservice. There is a big difference between gore implied and horrors witnessed.

It’s important to keep your reader in the moment. That’s why I try to avoid flashbacks and past tenses in my more disturbing scenes. Let them experience the terror as your characters do. The best horror books, in my opinion, spend equal amounts of time describing the blood and guts as they do the emotional reaction to the crime scene. If it’s all action and no heart, eventually we will grow numb to the thrill of the scare. If you plant a visceral response by letting us in on how your characters are negatively affected by every slash, then you’ve got both a visual and an emotional story. In my book, that adds up to a home run.

One of my main characters is a man named Baird. For me, it was important to make Baird unbearably cruel, while placing him in an impossible situation. I don’t want a character everyone hates without question. That’s too easy. I want my Severus Snape – someone the reader feels torn about. Baird is responsible for raising his sister in an incredibly violent and racially tense environment. To keep her safe, he turns her into a serial killer so they can pick off the bad ones before an attack comes upon them. He trades in her childhood so that she has the possibility of living to adulthood. Baird is unmerciful and unkind in every circumstance, but there’s always the lingering thought that he’s doing all of it to keep his sister alive. The death scenes are gory, but to truly hate the monster that Baird is, they must be brutal. The horrific ways he teaches his sister to murder cements his “no apologies” policy. In the end, the battle becomes not to stay alive, but to hold onto the shreds of their humanity as they turn into unflinching killers.

The Way

In a world not divided by race, creed or color, but by blood type, Blue Anders finds herself on the wrong end of fortune’s mercy. Born with a lesser blood type, Blue is raised in The Way, a work camp for A-bloods.


In my experience, there are always at least two aspects to every horror story. There’s the bloodlust, and the resistance to such things. In The Way, the main character, Blue, has a problem. If someone she loves is threatened, she blacks out and goes on a killing spree to protect what’s hers. When she wakes up, she’s horrified when she realizes the scope of the damage she is capable of. She struggles with her destiny of violence, and fights with her brother who reminds her daily that she is not a person, but a weapon. The Way follows Blue through the world of the Vemreaux as she learns to make peace, as well as fight.

Because of her damning A-blood type, Blue is a slave, living in a work camp called The Way. The B-bloods are the ruling class, and Blue must learn to live amongst the elite after being raised in the dregs of society. She attempts to control her aggressive urges as her brother makes plans for her predetermined future.

Mary E. Twomey lives in Michigan with her husband and two adorable children. She enjoys reading, writing, vegetarian cooking and telling her children fantastic stories about wombats.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I rarely write horror, though some bits in Aimless Fear are horrible. I think you are right, the crucial question is, what is the horror doing here? It may give motivation to the hero, it may show how awful the bad person really is, or it may just produce the jeopardy to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. I know that there are some people who like to simply wallow in it, in which case its purpose is to satisfy readers who like to wallow, there are some. The risk is that the rest of us, the non wallowers, will be bored and put the book down.