So I thought I’d write something that would look at how stories convey horror and atmosphere using language. This is going to look at some of the basics, so if it comes off as patronising I apologise. Still, I thought I’d start by looking at how some stories describe their scenes. First with more established literature, and then a popular creepypasta. So let’s dive right into the deep end.
“Yet the outcome was the same, for in one feverish kaleidoscopic instant there burst up from that doomed and accursed farm a gleamingly eruptive cataclysm of unnatural sparks and substance; blurring the glance of the few who saw it, and sending forth to the zenith a bombarding cloudburst of such coloured and fantastic fragments as our universe must needs disown.”
- H.P Lovecraft – The Colour Out of Space
So this is an interesting sentence, isn’t it? I imagine most people who aren’t overly familiar with English will find this a bit… obtuse. That’s fair enough. But I thought I’d use it because it really drives home the description. And despite being a very long sentence it’s still constructed impeccably. The relationship between every noun and verb is sign posted using the correct language.
To start, I think a great way to break this sentence down is just to list the adjectives in order and examine the flow of mood it conveys.
- Feverish - Kaleidoscopic - Doomed - Accursed - Eruptive - Unnatural - Coloured - Fantastic
It’s almost like a slideshow of feelings and ideas that all centre around fear and awe, and each word contributes something unique to the sentence without actually being repetitive. None of those words repeat the same ideas, in fact they’re all quite distinct barring doomed and accursed. They also carry you through a mini narrative, and convey ideas such as speed, age, visual qualities, nature, behaviour, and together these words even hint at hostility. There’s a lot going on, and the overall sense it conveys is one of motion, and terror.
So the content reflects the intended experience of fear.
But I mentioned above this sentence is a real doozy. Looking at it, I think there’s at least four clauses, and while it conveys a relatively simple order of events, it shoots off frequently so that reading it is a slow process that makes you stop to absorb the information. And despite its length there’s actually only one or two simple narrative actions you need to consider. It slows down and warps time, much like how time warps in real life when you experience fear. So the structure also reflects the intended experience of fear.
This is important. And when you write you should consider how your content, and sentence structure, convey the experience you want your reader to have. Lovecraft, specifically, relies on a complicated, and formal, voice and structure to do this. I really want to convey that this is not something everyone agrees is good, and it’s also his own unique distinct style that is very obviously his. But I use this particular example to draw attention to the use of imaginative descriptive passages, many verbs/adjectives/adverbs, and the way he uses sentence structure to his advantage. When reading other stories it’s a great idea to look at particular words that stick out to you, and consider how you might use them in your own stories. Although, for the love of God, exercise discipline when doing this or else you might end up over relying on a few words that don’t even fit your particular style.
Side note – my all-time favourite weird word is rugose, which is so obscure MS word just underlined it in red.
So now onto the next part, where I look at another, less obtuse example. This is from a very popular creepypasta:
"I took a picture of the costumes hanging on the walls. Upward angles, downward angles, side shots to show an entire row of frozen, putrid cartoon faces, some with plastic eyes missing.
"Then I decided to stage a shot. Just one of the bedraggled character heads on the slick, grimy floor.
"I reached for the headpiece of a Donald Duck costume and carefully removed it so the thing wouldn't fall apart in my hands.
"As I looked into the face of the wide-eyed, moldering head, a loud clattering sound made me jump with fright."
So straight away it’s obvious that slimybeast isn’t coming at us from 1920, and isn’t writing in a way that is overly descriptive. But I thought I’d still list the adjectives used in this section.
- Bedraggled - Slick - Grimy - Wide-eyed - Moldering - Loud
There’s not as many as above, and it’s about 30 words longer, but there’s still enough to convey a sense of place, atmosphere, and horror. So once again, the content here reflects the setting, and the intended experience. It makes me think of decay, and rot, and they seem like the sorts of words I’d think of when exploring an abandoned location. You too should think hard about the adjectives you can use to describe something, and just like Slimybeast and Lovecraft you should avoid repetition like the plague. Don’t follow spooky with scary, or bloody with gory, or dark and dim. They all overlap; try to make each word contribute something distinct. Although the occasional piece of repetition is okay, both examples here do use only one pair of words that are overly similar, and it helps the writing instead of harming it because of the conservative use.
But the structure is also important. It’s a much simpler structure, but more is happening as well. But it serves a few purposes. Firstly, it’s clearer and quicker to read, which makes things feel like they’re happening at a quicker pace. Secondly, it’s informal and feels a bit like dialogue, which contributes to the sense that you’re reading a real person’s descriptions of something that actually happened, and not just a piece of fiction. Thirdly, it uses the last sentence, which has a shock at the end, and slows the pace of events. In comparison the sentence just above it conveys a bit more despite a similar length. The last sentence just describes one event in greater detail. Again this slows things down, and helps build tension before an important moment.
So while Slimybeast uses content and sentence structure to convey a range of ideas and concepts, very quickly, he still does it in a very different style and format to Lovecraft. So three main lessons here:
- Use adjectives and adverbs that help reflect, and convey, the intended experience you’d like your audience to have.
- Similarly you should use sentence structure to do the same. Quick short sentences to get things moving, and longer more complex sentences to drag an event out and build up tension.
- And finally, there are a lot of different styles, try to experiment with different ones, and please don’t take this advice as ‘copy others’. You have to balance inspiration and originality.