6 Things American Horror Story Can Teach Us About Writing

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I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other week, I’ll bring you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show. This post will help you understand some important elements of the horror genre.

This week we'll take a look at American Horror Story. Potential spoilers follow. American Horror Story is an anthology series with a new storyline and characters every season (although every season is in the same fictional universe, so we see some crossovers). With such a variety in how the writers go about scaring readers from season to season, this is the perfect series to analyze when it comes to writing strong horror.

This post is part of a series of related posts on what popular television shows can teach us about writing. Be sure to check out other posts that cover developing terrifying antagonists, creating conflict and tension, and perfecting the details in your fiction. You can also read posts covering popular shows such as, How I Met Your Mother, Better Call Saul, and House of Cards.

writing, television, American Horror Story

1. Good Horror Means a Good Setting

Even after six seasons, the Murder House from season one is still my favorite setting. The restored mansion is supposed to be a chance at a new life for the Harmon family, who've seen their lives in Boston crumble. Instead, the house is the perfect horror setting—a classic haunted house story. Known as the Murder House, the mansion ends up being a nightmare for the Harmons. The ghosts that walk the halls represent more than just physical antagonists for Ben and Vivien; the haunted house is also a metaphor for the ghosts that haunt their marriage. Vivien caught Ben cheating on her with one of his students in Boston. That student later follows Ben to Los Angeles. The move and the new house are supposed to represent a new life and a healed marriage. Instead, it drives them apart. Vivien unwittingly cheats on Ben, sleeping with one of the ghosts, who fools her by donning a rubber suit. The resulting pregnancy later takes her life, as the Harmons all become permanent residents of the Murder House by season's end, finding peace only in the afterlife.

Apply This to Your Horror Story

Setting is everything in the horror genre. If you can't create a legitimately scary atmosphere and setting, then you've already lost half the battle. And it has to be a setting that's scary for both the character and the reader. Think of all the great settings that are synonymous with good horror: haunted houses, insane asylums, old castles, graveyards, space, hotels, etc. There's something that each of these things have in common. Isolation. If you want to create a legitimately frightening experience for character and reader alike, you need to isolate the protagonists, in turn making the reader feel isolated. Fear comes from the uncontrollable, the unknown. Putting characters in an isolated environment heightens that sense of the unknown.

2. Don't Go Overboard on the Scares

American Horror Story: Asylum delivers a creepy and disturbing atmosphere, complete with a historical backdrop. And this season is loaded with horror tropes: from an insane asylum to bizarre experiments by a former Nazi doctor to possession and exorcism to a serial killer. But the season goes a couple steps too far, as it felt like the writers threw several classic horror themes at the wall to see what stuck. The issue with this season wasn't with any of the above; rather, it's the inclusion of a storyline involving aliens. One of the patients at the asylum, Kit, saw his wife abducted by aliens. But he's called a lunatic and framed for the murder of his wife, as authorities believe he's Bloody Face, a serial killer responsible for the death of several people. Later, Kit falls in love with another inmate, who is also abducted. By the end of the season, the aliens end up taking Kit, who's dying of pancreatic cancer. The addition of the aliens is farfetched and unnecessary. They failed to add anything of significance to the primary storyline, and created a rather weak storyline for Kit. It felt like they were only included as a way to frame Kit.

Apply This to Your Horror Story

What are you writing about? Describe the true horror of your story in a sentence or two. Now branch off of that horror with another sentence (or two). Discover the potential ramifications of what you're choosing as your scary element(s). When you've nailed down your horror and the ramifications (i.e., a haunted house has ghosts, which means there's going to be noises, jump scares, books flying off shelves, etc.), stop there. You don't want to go overboard in creating a horror story. The simpler, the better. It gives readers some opportunity to fill in the gaps and imagine what could happen next. If you're throwing a lot of scares and horror elements at them, it can be overwhelming. Give some room for their imagination to run wild. That can provide plenty of scares.

From crafting an edge-of-your-seat plot to creating supernatural characters, this collection pulls together writing tips from best-selling authors to help you get your story idea on the shelves. This collection includes Dracula: Writer's Digest Annotated Classics, On Writing Horror, e-book versions of Writing Monsters and Writing the Paranormal Novel, and valuable webinars and tutorials for the horror writer. This Halloween Horror Writing Collection is available only for a short time, so take advantage of it today.


3. Use Source Material to Find True Horror

While I wasn't a fan of American Horror Story's third season, I appreciated the writers providing some historical elements to Coven. It was even more necessary with the setting of New Orleans, a city often associated with voodoo. The writers took some liberties in crafting heavily fictionalized versions of historical figures from New Orleans, including Marie Delphine LaLaurie (a New Orleans socialite and alleged serial killer, who tortured slaves), Marie Laveau (a voodoo practitioner), and the Axeman (a serial killer). These characters add depth, an extra layer to the show. There's some extra creepiness with these figures. And it also gave the writers the chance to delve into a topic like voodoo. This allowed for the use of a character like Papa Legba, a spirit in Haitian Voodoo. The scenes in which he appears are just a little darker. And knowing that there's a base for this story makes the horror just a littler more effective.

Apply This to Your Horror Story

Sometimes the scariest things in life are real. Why are haunted house documentaries and ghost hunting shows so popular? They're real. Or at least based in some truth. Or, at the very least, presented to appear to be true. You should do plenty of research when writing any novel, not just of the horror variety. Find out if you can base some characters in reality, or if you can attempt to provide a fictional explanation to a true event (see season six, based around the disappearance of the Roanoke colony). What scares you in real life? Why aren't you writing about that? If you're truly scared when you're writing, you can translate that heightened emotion onto the page.

4. Know the Strengths of Your Characters

Freak Show has been the weakest of the American Horror Story seasons, which is a shame. There was potential here for a different story, one that details one of the last remaining freak shows in the early 1950s. While all of the characters were uncomfortable and difficult to watch—from a two-headed woman to the strongman to a three breasted woman—this season was at its best when it followed Twisty the Clown. Twisty originally appears as a psychotic clown, stalking and murdering at random. He also kidnaps children in an attempt to "entertain" them later. The images of Twisty are horrifying; there are scenes of him standing nearly off screen, walking slowly towards some people, or alone at an abandoned amusement park, riding a merry-go-round. It's horribly unsettling, and probably one of the best horror elements the show has ever used. But then the writers explored Twisty, humanizing him and providing a backstory. This eventually leads to a quick exit in the season for the antagonist. But the strength of Twisty wasn't some elaborate backstory that explained why he stalks and murders. Twisty's strength was that there was no explanation. He was just creepy and disturbing; a member of a freak show turning against a community that had turned their back on his kind.

Apply This to Your Horror Story

If something's working in your fiction, don't mess with it. For the most part, the characters in the horror genre have become stereotypical. They don't have to be. You don't have to have the damsel in distress, the fracturing family with parents who ignore the children's cries, or the haunted father, who happens to be a writer (seriously, why are there so many writers in horror movies?). Discover the horror in your story first, then decide the types of characters who would be best suited to fight, and those who aren't as well-equipped to handle terror. Play to their strengths, and don't try to change them too much. If there's a genuinely terrifying character, then there's already a reason for him to be terrifying. You don't need more explanation. Run with it.

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5. Create Underlying Themes in Your Horror Story

There's a very obvious theme to American Horror Story: Hotel, one that's often in the viewers' face—addiction. Theme doesn't always have to be so obvious, but it works in this season. Hypodermic Sally is a dead heroin addict who haunts the halls. Donovan suffered from addiction, but is saved by one of the hotel's residents, The Countess. And The Countess is actually a century-old vampire. A serial killer who murders by the Ten Commandments runs loose on the city. There's even the presence of a horrifying addiction demon, who stalks the rooms. Every character has a compulsion, something that owns and totally controls them. The use of vampirism in this season is especially effective, as a strange cross between addiction and curse—something necessary for survival. In some ways, the vampires' addiction is youth and eternal life. The theme of addiction drives the show, and every character that passes through the halls finds some kind of reckoning because of their addiction.

Apply This to Your Horror Story

Just because you're writing a horror story doesn't mean you get to escape an all-important concept in writing fiction: developing a theme. It can be something that's in the reader's face, or something more subtle. But the theme should be tangible by the end of the story. And generally, with a good resolution, this is usually true in the horror genre. Think about it. There's the family that's falling apart, but comes together due to intense and trying circumstances. There's friends who conquer fear and tragedy, growing up in the process. Many themes are used over and over again, and are universal in other novels and genres. Read widely. Find a theme in something literary and see if you can give it a good twist.

6. Remember to Sustain Your Tension

The current season, Roanoke, takes a brand new, interesting approach to storytelling for American Horror Story. The storyline follows Matt and Shelby, who move from Los Angeles to North Carolina to escape some personal tragedies and start over. They buy an old house, which they later find out is haunted by the lost colonists of Roanoke. The first five episodes are shot as a documentary, with Matt and Shelby (as well as others) acting as talking heads while other actors play the reenact the story. The issue here is, the tension feels off for a while, since the audience knows Matt and Shelby survive. They're telling the story, after all. The twist comes in episode six, when the producer decides to reunite the cast (both re-enactors and those who lived through the haunting) together in the house, shot like a reality TV show. As everyone comes to realize that what Matt and Shelby experienced was real, the tension ramps up. And the creators amp everything up an extra notch by making the real ghosts much scarier than they looked in the reenactment. Now, without the benefit of the talking heads, the second half of the story looks more like found footage—and the question of who survives and who dies becomes more significant. The tension holds, and hooks viewers in.

Apply This to Your Horror Story

Tension is the key to any good novel, but it's particularly important for anything involving horror. If you can't get the reader to bite her fingernails, sit on the edge of her seat, glance nervously at the darkening corners in the room, or jump if something creaks, then you're not adding enough tension in your story. The best way to do this is to add twists in your story. This keeps an air of mystery in your story; it keeps the reader guessing. The longer you can keep the reader in the dark about what's happening—and about what's going to happen next—the stronger the horror.

Are you a fan of American Horror Story? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there's simply too much to cover in just one post, which is why you should stay tuned for the second half of this one! If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!

Cris Freese is the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the editor of Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.

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