Posted on July 21, 2019
I’ve written before about the key differences between horror and adventure (a term I use to include all the flavors of fantasy that are not horror), specifically here: horror-vs-adventure
Now I have a reason to talk about this subject again as what was previously an intellectual exercise now has real-life implications. I am taking the dark fantasy YA novel I had been submitting and rewriting it into an adult horror novel.
Why even do this? Honestly, the attempt to make the material YA friendly was a mistake. I had to buff and shine the truly horrific nature of the narrative to the point where it didn’t seem like anything at all was really happening. Secondly, I feel like the YA fantasy market is just absolutely awash in mediocre manuscripts. Thirdly, I prefer adult horror and have only read a smattering of YA.
Let’s call it what it was: I manipulated a manuscript to target a specific audience rather than write my book. That’s a violation of rule #1 for writers. Write your book.
So how hard can it be to change a dark fantasy to a horror novel? You add a little sex, throw in some gore, kill off a character or two and boom there it is. Right?
That’s what I thought. As it turns out, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Let’s start with the protagonists. In my case, four teenagers and three adults. There are successful adult horror novels that have teenagers as the protagonists (It and The Talisman come to mind), but it’s rare. Teenagers tend to lead YA novels, for obvious reasons.
So step one was to rewrite every teenager in the novel with a much older voice. I left them as teenagers, that’s critical to the plot, but I put them through much more difficult trials, the kind of stuff you normally see adults go through.
Next comes scope. Even a gothic horror novel like Ghost Story has to limit its scope because horror is much more intimate than fantasy. We need to spend time with the characters if we’re going to care when the plot pushes them into extremis. Too many characters and locations can spread out the dread too thin and far between.
An excellent example of this is The Stand. Technically, it’s a horror novel, but it feels like a science fiction novel and the sheer breadth of the story and wide-ranging scope of the characters diffuses the horror of the plague and it quickly becomes a science fiction adventure story even though it has one of the most powerful villains of all time.
Imagine if The Stand took place on a farm outside a small town. And that was it. You hear about the plague spreading on television until you actually see the effects in town. People begin drifting in to join the farm. The evil surrounds the farm, cuts it off from the world. Now you’ve got a proper horror story.
Isolation. A limited number of characters. Existential dread looming at the edges.
Step two was to cut a lot of characters so I could narrow the scope of the story. The ones who were the cogs and wheels of the very busy story structure of the fantasy all had to go. That allowed me to focus on my seven protagonists as they assemble in the isolated location hoping to survive the coming apocalypse.
In the YA dark fantasy version of the story, the evil elements were dealt with in the way of adventures: as hurdles to overcome so the protagonists could arrive at the ultimate showdown. In a horror novel, the evil has to be existential and mounting.
Think about Shirley Jackson’s awesome The Haunting of Hill House (the book, not the “This Is Us With Ghosts” remake or the ridiculous 90s remake) and how the house starts small and works its way up until it has everyone’s sanity coming loose from its moorings. The protagonists don’t overcome the writing on the wall or the banging on the door, they just get more and more scared. Soon, they turn on each other and, by the end, it’s just pure chaos.
Step three was to remove all the intermediate obstacles the protagonists overcame. In their place, a single night of hell that arrives in waves and ends with the crescendo of the final conflict from which only two of the seven will emerge unscathed.
That’s a lot of work. It’s basically a rewrite requiring the characters be recreated and moved around, their backstories retold, their adventures heightened and many, many cuts to the narrative.
But that’s what it means to write my book instead of one tailored to mass-market appeal.