This week: Horror For Kids: They'll Be Fine.Edited by: Jayne
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Hi there! Normally you can find me in the Contests/Activities and Mystery sections, but this week I'm your guest editor for the Horror newsletter.
Some parents dislike the idea of their youngsters delving into horror books. This writer isn’t one of them - I started reading Stephen King in grade seven, and I turned out alright. I’m particular about what I like in a scary story and put off by gratuitous gore. I’m sensitive to anything involving animals or children. And there’s a character from 25 years ago still terrifying me. You’re out of your mind if you think I’m telling you who it is. If I speak their name, they haunt my nightmares.
As movies, shows, comics, and books push the boundaries of scary into gross, the adults hesitate about when and what to let their kids read. After all, sensationalism gets the headlines, and dissecting off-putting content generates clicks. Inundated by these articles, busy parents may only see how ‘horrific’ horror has become, and no doubt they’d want to steer the children in a different direction. But that’s the thing - the awful ones are news because they’re uncommon. Outside of unique twists and turns, most follow a predictable formula, and people come away temporarily startled, not permanently scarred.
Horror writing exists to explore the things that frighten us. Horror books sell because people know controlled scares are fun. Readers like the outlet where the fear is real, but enjoy the safety of knowing they can close the book any time they want. They'll come back once they’ve processed what scared them.
Kids aren’t much different, and most have experienced jump-scares and creepy lore from friends and relatives. Scary stories are still told around campfires. Dark alleys, even in the safest of places, are off-putting. Twigs snapping in the bush at dusk means walking home just a little faster.
Writing horror for kids is the same as for adults, with a few very important differences. A classic horror will contain the same elements:
The premise of an established fear - something that makes people uneasy to begin with. Zombies, demons, ghosts, witches, immortal beings, unexplained phenomena, the dark, unsettling environments, animals - there’s a lot to choose from. Some of the best writers can take something mundane from those categories and turn it into nightmare fuel.
Strong tone, setting and intensity - the story may start out innocently enough, but eventually, ‘something’s not right’. All the story elements should become ominous and heightened. The more tension, the higher the intensity. The higher the intensity, the faster the pace.
Strong characters - your villain’s motives should be clear, purposeful and unshakeable. If you don’t present a specific motivation, or if the villain isn’t sentient/in control - make them ruthless and determined. Explore your protagonists trying to find the villain’s motivation - and terrorize your reader as they find out the thing is simply pure evil.
Repeated scares, shocks and end-of-chapter cliffhangers - your reader is scared for a protagonist because of the character’s decision or action (but don’t know what exactly will happen), because they know what the villain is up to (but the protagonist doesn’t), or because the author throws a curve ball no one saw coming.
The macabre and the unthinkable - part of the fun of being horror-scared is finding situations and villains outside societal norms. The reader wants to believe them, yet struggles to understand what’s in front of them. To best do that, having that kernel of truth - things people are actually afraid of - helps fuel their fear by letting their imaginations take over and float into ‘what if‘ territory. The lingering cause-and-effect helps keep the genre going. After all, the abandoned house down the street from you isn’t actually cursed, right? It’s probably fine to look in the windows, right?
A good plot - make sure the villain of your book is the character, not the writing.
Set the limitations
This is where the ‘children’ part comes into play. While the elements are the same, there are places an author needs to rein themselves in to reach a younger audience.
Don’t hit too close to home - this comes from R.L. Stine and is tied with the next point for “most important”: Avoid reality. No in-the-middle-of divorces, no abuse, no drugs, nothing that attaches to real-life home situations. Don’t hurt parents, relatives, pets and friends. At no point should your reader feel this isn’t a fantasy situation, and at no point should they fear for the people/animals in their real lives.
The Happily Ever After - unlike adult audiences who can process a horrible ending to a horrible story, kids need reassurance that everything in the fiction world is going to work out okay. The kids win, everyone is fine, and life goes back to normal.
Simplify your plot - streamline the sequences and limit the number of characters to keep track of. When using plot twists and cliffhangers, minimize the number of forks in the road. An author can and should use all those devices, but the characters shouldn’t get so far off track the story thread becomes confusing.
Dial back the terror - maintaining horror for a younger audience requires a different tone, incorporating elements more akin to adventure, and providing an atmosphere with more breaks for fun - or even funny - moments. The difficulty here is the balance. While you don’t need to go full Scooby-Doo, make sure you lighten up the fear factor.
Know what you’re talking about - don’t try to fit in with the cool kids if your last adventure into the world of young people’s culture was when you were a young person. Do your research, update your knowledge of technology, and familiarize yourself with current urban myths, updated lore, and other trends. This will allow you to write to today’s audience, not a nostalgic one that no longer exists.
The same applies to characters - make sure you understand the language of the age group you’re working for, or your characters will sound stilted. At the same time, don’t get bogged down in contemporary slang. Your work will quickly read as out of date.
Don’t be afraid of teaching - you don’t want a book that’s impossible for a kid to read, but there’s nothing wrong with a few challenging age-appropriate words, especially if they’re easy to define in the sentence's context.
There’s no reason writing horror for kids has to be a scary endeavor for the author. If it’s an area you’re interested in, it’s the same as any genre: start reading. Grab some titles by the best authors and dig in. Start with adult horror if you’re not familiar with the genre, so you can set a solid base for the entire horror concept, and iron out your own preferences. After that, start in on the kid’s books, and see how those same concepts are slimmed down and lightened up to make them age appropriate. Once you’ve mastered the how and the why, you can sit down and start giving the genre your own style.
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