College, Sophomore year. The class was about some of what we call Dead White Guys. Could have been the Beats, but most likely it was the Romantics. Maybe the Modernists. Don’t remember. Anyway, I’m sitting there before class begins, reading Stephen King’s Misery and my arch-nemesis (i.e. a girl I knew since high school and was already trying to out-do me in literary pomposity) saw my book and sniffed audibly. “How could you be reading such pedestrian writers?” she asked.
“Stephen King shows more literary prowess in one chapter than most of these assholes do in an entire novel,” I shot back. I held up Misery and let her know how you can actually feel the tension of this poor writer, and not just when the crazy lady cut off his feet (in the movie version she merely broke his feet with a sledgehammer), but in watching the typewriter keys start to fail. Because if he didn’t finish this book, she would kill him. “That kind of tension, suspended across 300 pages? THAT’S literature!” I said.
She snubbed this slight and I don’t know what she did next. Probably went back to pretending she understood Pound’s Cantos or something.
The point is this: character helps truly create the suspense, and King is a master at that. I forget what book it is (probably Salem’s Lot), but he creates a character on one page and kills the guy off on the next and you, the reader, actually FEEL THE LOSS.
That’s powerful writing, and you should incorporate it into everything you write.
Let me try an example: I could write something like
The werewolf leapt out of the shadows and tore his entrails from his belly, spilling over the ground as the man screamed. The wolf howled and sunk his teeth into the man’s throat.
Graphic. Cruel. But there is something missing here. Hm. Let’s see if we can spruce this up:
Jarrod walked home after closing the diner after midnight. Needed to be up at dawn for his second job at the glass plant, but the apartment was only a block away. He was looking forward to kissing little Charlotte (her four month birthday today!) on the forehead as she lay sleeping in her crib.
He still couldn’t believe he hadn’t wanted her when Mary told him she was pregnant. But now, now he couldn’t imagine life without her. He asked Mary for forgiveness every day for ever suggesting that she go to the clinic.
The werewolf leapt out of the shadows and tore Jarrod’s entrails from his belly, spilling over the ground as he screamed. The wolf howled and sunk his teeth into Jarrod’s throat.
Charlotte, a block away, (four months old today!) heard the howl and the scream in her sleep, but she would never remember. She would never know her father.
Might be a bit much, but I think you understand where I’m going with this. Take the time to make the people real, and the horror will be that much more deliciously horrifying.