Here’s what I see all the time when browsing the comments for various horror movies:
“This movie sucks! Complete trash.”
“This is basically just Goosebumps crap.”
“The first body doesn’t even show up until thirty minutes into the show.”
“Completely derivative. The ending is cliché.”
“Who wants to watch this? Everyone knows this creature only kills in one way. There’s no variety.”
“The plot was meandering.”
Unfortunately, these comments are from people who don’t understand the basics of horror, or for that matter, the basics of a story, so let’s go over what’s wrong with the comments above:
“This movie sucks…”
No, this movie sucks for you. There are plenty of people who enjoy the movie, and you’re just not one of them. When you make a comment like this without saying why a story is bad, you have no footing for an argument. Why? Because it’s clear that you like a particular type of horror, and what you just watched or read is not your type of horror or your subgenre of horror.
How to fix this? Realize what it is you like so that you can understand what it is you want in your horror. You could say instead:
“I’m a fan of undead stories. I wished they’d focused more on the ghosts.”
“I like creature flicks. I didn’t really get to see a lot of detail on the monster.”
“I typically watch slasher movies. I’d have rather they focused on the killings than the whole car chase scene.”
“I consume vast amounts of true crime stories. The killer made so many mistakes in this movie that he should have been caught early on.”
Understanding why you don’t like a certain story, plot, movie, etc. is fundamental to understanding your own writing. If you don’t understand this, you can’t construct more than one plot. Your stories will all sound the same. Watching or reading horror you don’t like will actually improve your writing, because then you can improve on the elements you do like and avoid the ones you don’t.
“This is just Goosebumps…”
Goosebumps—if you didn’t know because you were living in a cave or were dead for several years—is a popular series of children’s horror written by R.L. Stine. Typically, when someone accuses a story or movie of being “Goosebumps,” what they’re really saying is that it lacks gore and/or adult themes such as sex and nudity.
Gore and adult themes are features of many horror stories and movies, but that’s all they are…features. A feature added to a good story is added because it’s necessary. A feature added “just because” is a gimmick if it’s not necessary to further the plot.
Now, some people like a lot of unnecessary gore and adult themes within their horror. There is nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the gimmick. However, what you can’t do is tank on someone else’s fiction because it’s not tailored to you. Writing, writing anything at all, doesn’t work that way.
“The first body doesn’t even show up…”
This is a common complaint I see online. First of all, there are many different types of horror and subgenres of horror. The body-count movie/story is just one of many. I think, originally, this type of movie/story was simply a gimmick, but it has since grown into its own subgenre.
Honestly, if you want a true body count, try watching the movie Hardcore Henry. It’s not horror, but it certainly is brutal in the killing way.
The first thing to realize here is really the only thing to realize: if you only want to see or read this type of horror, the body-count subgenre, then all you’ll ever write is this type of horror. You’ll limit yourself to one small subgenre, so keep that in mind.
Unfortunately, many amateur critics do not understand what “derivative” means. Some people think that “derivative” means “cliché,” “the ending was predictable,” or “this story is like this one.” None of these are examples of “derivative.”
When a story is in a clichéd setting, theme, or plot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is bad. The author may simply like this type of story but wanted to put their own spin on it. For example, many authors today write cosmic horror, slasher horror, and true crime horror, and all of those can be considered cliché, but each story is unique to the author. Also, there comes a point where a cliché becomes a subgenre, so keep that in mind.
As for predictable endings, I’ll just say this. I’ve been telling horror stories since I was four, and that’s forty-five years now. I’ve seen and read the very best of horror right down to the very worst. In other words, I have a lot of experience in this, and most of the time, I can predict the ending of a movie or story long before the end. Here’s the thing: sometimes the predictable ending is the best one. A story is only as good as its plot, and if the plot’s best ending is predictable, then so be it.
When a story is like another one, that doesn’t mean they are the same. I hate to break it to you, but every modern story is inspired by something else, mainly because we don’t live in the Stone Age when stories were new. It’s the combinations of characters, plot elements, dialogue, setting, mood, theme, atmosphere, and description that make a story unique, not whether it reminds you of another work.
So what is “derivative”?
When a story is derivative, that means it’s pretty much a direct copy of something else. Sometimes that copy is better, but most of the time it’s worse, if not far worse. Now, when I say “direct copy,” I mean taking the exact same plot and simply changing the names, setting, and possibly the time period. It’s like taking Star Wars and having “Duke Airrunner” pitted against “Dart Hodder” during World War II. Derivative works are typically cheap knockoffs meant to capitalize on someone else’s hard work.
“The creature only kills in one way…”
This is another common complaint I see online.
Not all horror is the same, especially creature features and monster movies. Jaws is one of the greatest movies of all time, and I’m pretty sure that shark only kills in one way.
Horror isn’t necessarily about a kill count or a variety in methods of killing. There are other elements to horror, such as suspense, mood, theme, atmosphere, characters, dialogue, and the plot that all add or subtract to how good or bad a horror story can be.
“The plot was meandering.”
This type of comment comes from critics who have a difficult time following plots in general. Typically, if the plot of a movie or story is slow and is involved in character building, describing setting, or building exposition, you will hear this type of complaint.
What is a linear plot, then? What is a meandering plot?
A linear plot goes from A to B without confusion. A meandering plot is like watching a movie or reading a story with no plot at all. It makes little sense, even when the movie or author tries to tie everything together at the end.
Remember, when a plot is slow because it has interesting character development or exposition, that does not mean it “meanders.” That is not the definition of a meandering plot.
A meandering plot is one that makes little sense overall. Don’t get caught up in the details. Sometimes a plot will veer off course by adding non-essential “filler.” This does not make the plot a “meandering” one. Most authors have pretty linear plots with some filler. Filler is often used to give the characters some actual “character,” put in exposition, or to distract the reader or watcher from a twist at the end.
I once heard a podcast by an established author (whose name shall not be mentioned here) who hated the science-fiction movie, Pacific Rim. One of his chief complaints was the meandering plot. Now, I don’t like this movie at all, and I have plenty of complaints about it, but the plot itself was pretty linear. It was just a mediocre plot that was poorly executed.
If you want a good example of a meandering plot, watch the movie No Escape Room. That story wandered all over the place and made little sense, even at the end.
So what do all of these complaints have to do with writing short horror?
If you don’t understand what you like or dislike in horror, you will never be satisfied with what you read or watch, and your own stories will suffer for it.
Well, it comes down to variety. You really need to branch out and consume as much horror as you can in order to successfully write it, or you will never have any variety to your own works. You’ll be writing the same characters, dialogue, and plot(s) over and over again.
Here is what I see when I say this online:
“I don’t read books written by women.”
“I don’t read books written by men.”
“I don’t read books by (insert minority here).”
“I don’t read books by white authors.”
“I only read straight fiction.”
“I only read gay fiction.”
My answer to that is:
- Don’t discriminate. We lead by example, not by being stupid.
- Don’t cut yourself out of your own creativity.
If you don’t expand your reading and viewing repertoire, you will never be able to reach past a certain creative threshold. It’s that simple. You have to put in the legwork in order to get results, and your own creativity will suffer for it if you don’t.
In other words, expand your reading and viewing base. You are not going to like everything you read or watch, but you’ll certainly be better off for it. If you end up reading or watching something that’s so bad you feel like you’ve wasted your time, you actually haven’t. You now know what not to do when writing your own fiction.
I’ll lay out a few final words in understanding your complaints. I have, as I have previously mentioned, seen and read the very worst and the very best horror has to offer. What I’m trying to say is: you cannot judge someone else’s works without having the experience to do so.
It’s like this:
If you go to the very best restaurant in your city and say, “Oh, the food was pretty good,” thinking that restaurant was a 6 out of 10, you’ve just screwed over your taste buds. When you go to a regular restaurant, you’re going to judge it a 1 out of 10 rather than a 5 out of ten because the original restaurant was a 10 out of 10. Nothing you eat will ever be satisfying again.
You have to have an accurate judging base before you can actually judge anything, and that requires putting in the time to study other people’s works. Don’t rate other people’s works until you have an accurate understanding of how to do so. This is essential, because you need to figure out what you like or dislike in horror so that you can write it.
In closing, I hope this information helps you on your writing journey, and my advice is and always has been: keep putting out those stories. There is no shortage of fans of short horror out there.
How to Write Short Horror #3: Understanding Your Complaints Copyright © 2023 Matthew L. Marlott