Book Recipes: How to Write a Teen Horror

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at teen horror. Let’s head up to the creepy old mansion and get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • An assorted group of expendable teenage victims
  • One spooky location
  • Dire warnings that everybody ignores
  • Ghooooooooosts
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Feel the fear. (image: knowyourmeme.com)
  • A series of graphic and horrible deaths
  • A generous dollop of sheer stupidity
  • Creepy shadows
  • Screaming

 

Method:

  1. Drench your spooky location in creepy legends. It doesn’t matter what they are, or if they make no sense. You’ve just got to make it clear that no-one in their right mind would ever go there, ever.
  2. Let’s go there!
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YES BRUV (image: giphy.com)
  1. Nerd Teen tells us all about the creepy legends. It includes a detail which is quite obviously Very Important. Everyone ignores them.
  2. The teens are walking around the spooky place. There are mildly spooky noises, but they all assume that they are the work of the Worst Teen, who is probably called Brad.
  3. Doors mysteriously close. The words LEAVE NOW write themselves on the walls. Random objects start to bleed. Ignore them – it’s probably just Brad.
  4. Someone is separated from the group! They’re definitely dead. Better stick together and quietly and respectfully leave while everyone’s still alive.
  5. Screw that, let’s split up! And make jokes about the ghosts! That couldn’t possibly backfire.
  6. Spooky things are picking off the teens one by one! Instead of leaving like sensible people, they scream ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?!?!?’ and knock things over.
  7. Time for the first extravagantly silly and disgusting death. It’s gross.
  8. Blonde Teen starts screaming.
  9. More horrific and gross deaths! Make sure to bring a sick bag.
  10. Worst Teen takes advantage of everyone being isolated and scared to do something really awful. He dies, and people are just so sad.
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I’m really cut up about this. (reactiongifs.com)
  1. Time to consult those creepy legends! We’re about two-thirds of the way through now, so we need a Get Out of Jail Free card.
  2. Wait a minute. What if that Very Important Detail actually…matters?
  3. Try and regroup. Armed with knowledge they should have listened to earlier, the teens can now defeat the monster!
  4. But first they need a thing. Go and find it!
  5. They find the thing, hooray! But oh no, some more of them have died, gross-ly.
  6. Quick! Time to use the thing to defeat the monster before the last stroke of midnight or whatever!
  7. Hooray, you did it! Limp home in the sunlight and hope no-one asks about all your dead friends. Everything’s fine.
  8. OR IS IT???

THE END. Serve on a mysterious tome that you should never, ever open.

 

Tips:

  • Stuck on a location? Traditionalists go for abandoned mansions, disused asylums and any kind of burial ground. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s dark, isolated and makes weird noises.
  • Always set it at night. Daytime is not spooky.

  • Include a wide range of teens, but don’t bother giving them actual personalities because they’re just going to die. Football Teen, Nerd Teen, Blonde Teen and Prank Teen are all solid choices, but why stop there? There’s only one thing you need to remember: all of them must be as dumb as a bag of rocks.
  • Never, ever, ever include any responsible adults.
  • Always leave a loophole in your creepy legends, but feel free to ignore it if you want a great cliffhanger ending.
  • The ghosts’ behaviour doesn’t need to make sense. They’re ghosts! All they need to do is drift about spookily, smash stuff, and occasionally tear people into pieces. Logic is for the living!
  • Don’t call the police. Don’t leave the spooky place. Don’t stick together in a quiet, respectful group and slowly back away. That would be sensible and we can’t have that.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

The moon was high over the old Darkmore place. Leaves skittered across the ground. Bats shrieked in the trees. As the five friends stared up at the old house, a cloud drifted over the moon, and Janey caught a glimpse of something moving at the window. A knife? No. It was probably just Brad.

“Are you guys sure this is a good idea?”

Lauren, who was blonde, rolled her eyes. “Come on, Janey, don’t be lame. Everyone knows Darkmore Mansion is the best place for a Halloween party.”

Something screamed in the woods. Janey flinched.

Russell, who had glasses, cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, the history of the house is fascinating. It was built on an ancient burial ground which was later used to execute seventeenth-century witches. The house was only built in 1846, when Hugo von Darkmore, a mysterious landowner, fled his native Bulgaria after being accused of committing unspeakable acts with –”

“Are you dorks still hanging around?”

Brad came out of the house, wearing a beer hat and a football jersey. Behind him, the front door creaked slowly shut.

“Did anyone see that?” Janey said, “that door just closed by itself.”

“Be cool, Janey!” Lauren hissed. “You better not ruin this for me with Brad!”

She went over to him. Kyle and Cole followed, high-fiving and exchanging fist bumps, and Janey wondered why they had both chosen to wear T-shirts with enormous targets printed right over their hearts. There was a strange howl from the woods. It sounded like someone – or something – was yelling “Goooooooo!”

Janey shrugged. It was probably nothing.

“Anyway,” Russell continued, “after the mysterious fire, which no-one survived, the house became an asylum specialising in the most murderous inmates, which was mysteriously closed down after…”

The wind rustled through the trees. For a second Janey thought she saw a face at one of the windows, but she blinked and it was gone. What she did see was a viscous dark liquid oozing out from one of the windowsills.

“Russell,” she said, trying to keep calm, “I think that window is bleeding.”

“…and of course after they found the altar…oh, that? That’s nothing to worry about. It’s a common household problem for these big old places.”

“Is it?”

“Oh yes. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the big pile of skulls. The really interesting thing was that none of them quite seemed to match a human head…”

There was that noise again. “Gooooooo!”, it seemed to say. But that couldn’t be right. A door slammed and Janey jumped again.

“Brad! Cut it out!” Lauren laughed.

The wind rustled through the trees again, and this time, it almost sounded like a very irritated sigh. Janey looked up. The face at the window was back, but this time, it had no eyes.

“…but really all of these unexplained apparitions are just, you know, ball lightning, unusual acoustics, and the restless dead. There’s really nothing to worry about.”

“Russell, I really think there’s someone in there.”

“Oh, it’s probably just Brad.”

“Brad’s outside!”

“Yes, but you know what he’s like. D’you want a beer?”

Now, the wind rustling in the trees sounded a lot like ghostly swearing. All the windows started to bleed at once, and smoke spontaneously curled out of every chimney.

“Sweet, brah! Party tricks!” yelled Kyle, fist-bumping Brad.

Janey stared up at the smoke. It had begun to form strange shapes – skulls, pentagrams, and the words ‘JUST GO’ in big scary letters.

“Maybe this is a bad idea,” she said.

‘YES IT IS’, spelled the smoke.

Cole and Kyle just booed her. Lauren glared. “God, Janey! Don’t be such a baby!”

Janey hesitated. There was that howl again – but this time, it almost sounded like the words “What do I have to do to make you leeeeeeeave?”

Brad shrugged. “Hey, it’s cool, brah. You can go home if you’re too chicken.”

Janey froze. Then she marched into the house – past the creepy woods, the graveyard filled with eerie tombstones, and the inexplicably screaming statue – dragging Russell in after her. The rest of them all went inside, exchanging high fives.

There was a moment of silence.

Then, a ghostly voice said “Goddammit,”, and everything went black.

 

Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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Mary Sue: B-B-Bad to the Bone

So! Before I got distracted by the Game of Thrones finale, I was ranting on about Mary Sues. Quick recap: a Mary Sue is a character (usually female) who stands at the centre of the fictional universe. Their flaws never cause them problems, they’re multi-talented, they always get the guy (or girl) of their choice, and they’re disgustingly attractive. They’re more of an ideal than an actual character, and this is usually what causes the bulk of the problems. Feel free to refresh your memory in the previous post.

I’m slightly late to the party when it comes to ranting about Mary Sues. A quick Google will tell you that I’m not the only one who sees an issue with them. There’s countless articles listing the worst Mary Sues in fiction, cartoons showing them being defeated in cartoonishly bloody ways, and tests to show writers how to avoid them. It’s an entertaining rabbit hole to go down.

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Wheeeeeeeee! (image: giphy.com)

Mary Sues are characters whose reputations precede them. The label is enough to cast serious doubt on any character it’s applied to. One of the most common criticisms about Ginny Weasley, for example, is that she’s a Mary Sue, and this is something that’s often said by people who wish Harry and Hermione had got together. The label was also hastily applied to Rey, the mysterious ingénue at the centre of the new Star Wars trilogy, but whether she is one or not still remains to be seen. (Come on guys, at least wait until her character arc is finished before you judge.) Mary Sues have become so reviled that labelling a character as such can be quite an insult – and no wonder, when it puts the work in the same category as My Immortal.

Let’s be real. While the term can just be used as an insult, Mary Sues are badly written characters, and the term is a useful piece of shorthand for summing up the flaws in both a character and a work that this kind of writing can lead to. In my last post I talked briefly about the kind of problems that Mary Sues can cause, but I’ll go into more detail here.

First, let’s look at character. A Mary Sue’s biggest problem is that they do not have flaws – or if they do, they never actually have consequences for the character in the way that real flaws do. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue has a hot temper – she can say whatever she likes to Professor Snape and she won’t get in trouble for it. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is clumsy – she can stumble off the edge of a ravine and Edward Cullen will be there to catch her. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is shy – this won’t affect her ability to date Draco Malfoy, the Phantom of the Opera, or that one hot dwarf from The Hobbit.

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He’s just so pretty. (image: hollywood.com)

There are two ways that this lack of flaws can go. The first is the demonstration of informed attributes. I talked about this a bit in my Strong Female Characters series, so I’ll ty to be brief. Essentially, this is when readers are told that a character is angry, blunt or cowardly without seeing them exhibit any anger, bluntness or cowardice. In this instance, characters will talk about how angry our Mary Sue is, but she won’t actually express any anger. The second is the opposite. Our Mary Sue will demonstrate anger, bluntness or cowardice, but none of the other characters will act as if that’s what she’s done. Her flaws, if she demonstrates them, do not have consequences.

Effectively, this means that a Mary Sue doesn’t have flaws – if a tree falls in a forest, etc. She cannot be described as clumsy if we don’t see her fall over. She cannot be said to have anger issues if they don’t cause problems for her. She cannot be treated as a being with flaws, because flawed characters fail, and get spots, and grow old and eewwww, who wants to read about that?

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Yes. (image: community.ew.com)

This leads me nicely into the second issue I want to talk about: how Mary Sues affect the world around them. Mary Sues are not only flawless, perfect characters. Everyone else has to acknowledge that they are perfect and flawless, including the author. Mary Sues are by definition perfect, and that means they are also the best, most important, attractivest and greatest character evah, you guys!

What this means is that Mary Sues are essentially black holes. It’s not that they exist in all their perfection – that’s not the problem. The problem is that their perfection bends the rest of the universe around them, until they are at the centre of the story. Everything is warped to fit around them, including setting, mythology and other characters. This is where the other side of a Mary Sue’s flawlessness comes into play. If she does actually demonstrate something that could be construed as a flaw, other characters will not change their perception of her because of that. The classic example of this is Anastasia Steele. She’s actually an incredibly bitchy character, and both her internal monologue and the things she actually says are peppered with extremely nasty comments about women. However, nobody ever calls her out on this. She doesn’t even get a raised eyebrow. No-one, literally no-one, thinks that anything she says is unkind. Throughout the series all the other characters treat her as if she’s the kindest, most precious little darling that you ever did see – even if what she actually says or does directly contradicts that.

This is where people really get irritated at Mary Sues, particularly in fanfiction. At their very worst, Mary Sues can completely change the fabric of a story just by existing in it. Take, for example, the popular Harry Potter fanfiction cliché – Harry Potter’s secret (and better) sibling. If you’ve read any fanfiction it’s likely that you’ve come across this before, but the basic premise is this. Harry Potter has a sibling (usually a sister) who also got a lightning scar from Voldemort. They were then separated and only re-united when she arrives at Hogwarts, where she proceeds to live out the entire series but just, you know, better. This premise completely undermines the basic plot of the series. Pretty much everything Harry went through was affected by the fact that he was the only one to survive the killing curse. Having more than one person survive smashes all that to pieces. And it’s not just Harry that plotline affects – the entire wizarding world was also affected by Harry’s survival, and developed accordingly. Having another survivor doesn’t just ruin Harry’s backstory, it also disassembles a huge amount of worldbuilding. The idea of there being a ‘Chosen One’ doesn’t really work when you’ve got a spare handy.

But this isn’t the only reason why Mary Sues should be avoided. Let’s look at another hallmark of the Mary Sue: the tragic past.

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I feel like I’m going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)

Not all Sues have a tragic backstory, but the vast majority do. This comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be anything – from being catapulted into space as a baby and being stranded on Earth, or at the darker end of the scale, child abuse, rape and murder.

These are serious subjects that should be handled with tact and care. But that’s not what happens with Mary Sues. A Mary Sue’s tragic past does not function in the same way as it would for another character. It does not leave claw marks in her personality; there are no scars in her psyche. A Mary Sue’s tragic past exists for her to share it, tearfully, with her love interest, and then never talk about it again.

It goes without saying that this is incredibly disrespectful. While being blasted into space as a child isn’t exactly common, unfortunately abuse is. According to the NSPCC, one in fourteen children were subjected to physical abuse in 2016 – a rate that was three times higher for disabled children. And it’s likely that the real number is much higher, because a substantial amount of abuse cases go unreported. It goes without saying that something like this cannot be brushed aside as easily as the Mary Sues make it look: it’s something that will affect everything about a person for the rest of their life.

Personally, I’d like to believe that the reason why Mary Sues gloss over their terrible pasts in favour of making out is because most of them are written by authors who might not understand the full implications of what they’re saying. This could be for any number of reasons, including age and inexperience, but it rarely comes from a bad place. It is hard to write tactfully and thoughtfully about subjects as difficult as these at the best of times, but a lack of understanding is only ever going to make it worse.

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That was hard to write. Let’s have kittens LOOK AT HIS FACE (image: pinterest.com)

But good intentions aside, I worry about how this kind of portrayal would affect people dealing with such issues in real life. Take My Immortal – the infamous Harry Potter fanfic drenched in black eyeliner. The main character, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way (no, I’m not making that up) is one of the most ridiculous characters in fiction. She is a self-proclaimed goth who dresses like a music video and gives all her friends stupid nicknames: Ron Weasley becomes Diablo, Hermione Granger becomes B’loody Mary Smith. She also self-harms. As you might expect, this isn’t treated as gently as it should be, and it becomes another thing for readers to laugh at. I’m in no position to comment about how this might have made self-harmers feel, but I don’t think it would’ve helped.

The term Mary Sue covers a multitude of sins. I’ve touched on some of them, but not all. A poorly-written Mary Sue isn’t just a bad character: she can completely derail an entire fictional universe, and trivialise the effects of a whole host of problems with a stroke of the pen. I hope I’ve given a decent summary of the kind of problems that a Mary Sue can cause.

But have you noticed how all through this post, I’ve been talking about girls? For the next post, I’ll be talking about gender. Bring lipstick.