Horror Fiction: How Much Is Too Much

Last night, after my nightly conversation with my loving bride-to-be, I sat back down at the laptop to get back to promoting the site. Only, my internet had gone down. For that, I would like to apologize to my many Twitter followers since my shout-outs didn’t make it up last night. Good damn thing it’s Follow Friday over there. Anyway, as an independently publishing author I knew that, if I wasn’t promoting, I needed to be writing. I pulled up a new document and started searching for those first words and author needs to get the juices flowing. They came in the form of:

Frank woke up shivering. “Goddamn heat.”

Now, I’d sat down with a story idea in mind. But with those words, the story started flowing it took on a life all its own and veered into a darkness only it could exist in. Which makes me ask the question: How much is too much in horror?

Horror fans live in the world of quote, unquote, torture porn. Some of these films and stories do, in fact, deliver very strong messages. Saw, for example, may contain some very harsh and gruesome scenes. Yet, at it’s heart, it asks the viewer to ask themselves how far they would be willing to go in order to stay alive. Would you kill a complete stranger? Would you slit the belly of a drug dealer open to unlock the device that was about to rip their head apart? Would you horribly disfigure yourself by amputating your own foot? Other films may weakly ask this question, but they are more geared towards showing the viewer a series of harshly violent scenes. You know these films when you see them, I won’t mention them by name for sake of invoking the ire of some filmmakers.

As a writer, I am all about freedom of speech and expression. However, I am also a firm believer that writers not only have a responsibility to entertain but to deliver strong messages to their readers too. As I was writing the story, currently titled Ghosts from Over There, I found myself asking why the story was being written. Why was it so unforgivingly violent?

When writing horror, please make sure that every ounce of violence and gore in your story is justified. If all you are doing is throwing some violent scenes together and slapping a title on it, your story is weak. You need strong characters and a strong story which usually means a strong message you are delivering to the audience. Otherwise, traditional publishers are likely to reject your work (at least the pro paying markets) and, for independent publishing authors such as myself, run the risk of turning readers off from the rest of their work.

How do you know? Just ask yourself the same question I did. Why is your story so violent. If you can’t answer that question without saying: because it’s cool, because that’s the way I wrote it, or because it’s horror, etc, then you need to go back to square one or, at the very least finish it and then find it’s hidden meaning as you read over it (you are reading, rereading, writing, and rewriting, right).

When I asked this question of GfOT, my answer came to me as I was reading what I’d written so far. This wasn’t a violence for the sake of violence story like I’d feared. I was a very disturbing tale of a man haunted by his past. The reason it was so damn violent was because I want the reader to be disturbed by it. I want them to read it and feel dirty for having experienced it… just like the main character did. Usually, this is not an effect a writer wants to go for… unless they are expressing a very strong message.

So what about readers that really do want to read a bunch of violent crap labeled with a title? There are those readers out there, yes. However, they are not going to fault you for putting a message behind your violence. You are less likely to turn these readers away with a message that you are other readers without one.

Ghosts from Over There will continue it’s downward spiral of creation and I will be releasing it. However, it is likely to be released with a very extended warning and message from me explaining why it is such a dark piece of fiction. So let’s hear from you. What are your thoughts on proper justification for violence and gore in horror? How much is too much?

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