Literary Lessons from Bad Two Sentence Horror
Posted On March 24, 2022
I’m a strong believer in you can learn and grow as a writer from any sort of creative work, not just books, and especially not just the types of books you want to write. Which is why one of my favorite Twitter accounts is Bad Two Sentence Horror. It’s posts from r/TwoSentenceHorror…that are bad.
I’m going to go over some of the basic building blocks of “good” storytelling…by using various examples of things being done poorly. The shorter a work is, the more critical it is for each part to be done masterfully. It also makes it much easier to analyze! Which is why they’re perfect for a post like this.
As an aside, this isn’t meant to dunk on any of the people who’ve written these “bad” stories. I genuinely enjoy them, even though they are poorly written, because they make me laugh and make me think about the craft of writing. Part of being a creative is learning from the mistakes of others, as well as growing from your own mistakes. So…don’t go and harass any of these people. Please.
The Three Act Structure
This is something we all know innately: introduction, conflict, resolution. We can’t appreciate how jarring the hero’s new situation is if we don’t see what their life is like beforehand. In a longer work, there will be multiples of these rising/falling actions (a fight/chase scene, an argument), each a stepping stone to resolving the greater conflict (beating the big bad, winning the big game).
A lot of Two Sentence Horror falls flat because they’re set up more like jokes than stories:
Sentence 1: the setup, the normal world the character lives in
Sentence 2: the punchline, the scary thing
If we were to find ourselves in a situation where we were suddenly without oxygen, that would be scary! But in the context of this story, it’s just confusing. It’s a jarring change that ends the story suddenly and has no resolution. I guess the narrator dies? Or maybe they go back into their house and close the door? Why is there no oxygen? Are they actually on the moon? Is this a Twilight Zone type thing?
The reason “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” works is because there are 3 discrete parts to the story (each pair of words) that form or answer a singular question. There’s really only one situation that could lead to this, you put that together in your brain instead of the story explicitly telling you, and that realization is the emotional impact of the work. Meanwhile “But there was no oxygen” brings about many questions, no resolution, and leaves you feeling bewildered, not scared.
If you can be misread, you will be. Also: no matter how idiot-proof you make something, they’ll always build a better idiot. Which means it’s impossible to write something that will get your intention across 100% correct 100% of the time. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim to be as clear as possible.
An ambulance doesn’t have legs (presumably, unless the ambulance here is some sort of creature), so the missing kneecaps belong to the narrator. I’m guessing the person got run over by an ambulance and their kneecaps got…obliterated to nothingness?
One of the things I find most important in writing is “flow,” the path the mind takes as it goes through a sentence, paragraph, chapter, how it blends from one idea to the next. The first sentence flows perfectly fine, and as it moves to “The ambulance found me”, you can see where this is going, the person is going to be hit by an ambulance, what a cruel irony! “moments later” so this happens quickly, again, cruel and ironic. And then “with both kneecaps missing.” You trip on a crack in the sidewalk and smash your face into the concrete, breaking all your teeth. You pick yourself up and re-read the whole sentence to figure out what just happened. You have to use human-brain skills to realize that “kneecaps” can’t possibly be referring to the ambulance, it has to be the narrator. Like explaining a joke, the flow to the conflict/resolution has been ruined and the entire experience is sullied.
Death of the Author
…which leads us into the next subject. A work needs to stand on its own. I shouldn’t have to play a limited-time Fortnite event to know why Palpatine is in episode IX. I shouldn’t need to read a tweet of yours to know that a character is gay. If you have to explain what happens in the story OUTSIDE of the story for it to be understood, then you messed up. Not everyone will look at that stuff (or even know it exists)(or it might not even exist in the future!), so everything needed for the work to function must reside within the work.
In theory, this should be easy, but it is difficult in practice. As the writer, you already know everything about the plot, world, and characters. To you, it should be obvious that this serial killer is a man and kills the objects of his desire. Which, up until now, were women. I mean, virtually all real serial killers are male, after all! But you know what they say about assumptions. Don’t assume that what is obvious to you is obvious to your readers. This is why beta readers are so important! And when your story is 2 sentences long, it shouldn’t be very difficult to get multiple people to read it and give you feedback.
[This is also probably one of my favorite Two Sentence Horrors. The exclamation point, the weird spelling/capitalization of bisexual, the concept of coming out meaning you’re going to kill even more people now, the ??? comment…there’s just so much going on and I love every moment of it]
For the Love of God, Please, Edit Your Work!!!
Not gonna lie, I spent a really long time looking at this one to try to figure out if this was being meta and I was missing something. There’s the evil version in the mirror, so maybe the two “was”-s is supposed to be a mirror, the text duplicated and now going backwards because now the evil you is the narrator. But the only instance of “of” in the work is the last word, so…
Even after going through multiple editors, there can still be spelling/grammar problems that slip by, and that’s okay! But hit F7 in Word. Or use Grammarly, it’s free. Or just re-read your own work. It’s two sentences and this is a pretty easy error to catch. It’s especially egregious because there’s words missing, so we don’t even know what is the full resolution of this story. Something like that isn’t something an editor can fix for you, because they can’t possibly know what it is you’re trying to accomplish. So, please, go over your work at least once.
Be Specific, With Purpose
Another thing to do with flow! Long sentences slow down the pace of the story, short sentences speed it up; same concept with short, quick cuts in a show/film vs long, continuous shots. When you take the time to include details (such as many adjectives), you’re pumping the breaks to tell the reader “look! This stuff is important.” If a character steps into a beautiful room, they’re going to be looking at all the stuff. You describing what it all looks like makes sense, both narratively and diegetically. But if they’re running through alleys to escape The Creature, then they’re not going to take the time to notice how many feet tall a dumpster is. Also, your reader isn’t going to care about that, they’re going to care about your character fleeing.
Keep in mind, though, that every “rule”/convention to writing has exceptions. But the exceptions need a purpose and they need to be executed well. “Snydervision” in 300 and Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole have action scenes that suddenly shift to ultra-slow mo to highlight specific details, you can appreciate the weight of the swings, the beauty of the blades or how a character’s face morphs as the tides of battle change. It’s a stylistic choice, and (in my opinion) it works! It gives the scenes a very specific feel.
But also these details need a reason to exist. What is the reason to give such very specific details of the gun? Does that tell us something specific about the character? Why that region of the brain? Why not just “but that was probably because of the shotgun against his temple.” ?
I’ve noticed that when a writer goes out of their way to give hyper-specific details (he picked up the hairbrush with his left hand and started brushing his hair), it’s usually because the writer believes we NEED to imagine things exactly the same way that they’re picturing them. But, rarely, this is necessary. When you include very specific details, you’re not going to describe EVERYTHING, so there will still be things the reader will make up or assume on their own, and then a detail down the line will contradict that and they’ll get confused. It just creates more opportunities for clarity issues, while also slowing down your story with unnecessary detail, and making more words for you to edit/proofread later. It’s a lot of extra problems for not much payoff. Spend your words wisely.
Scary Trope != Scary Story
Something is scary for specific reasons. A werewolf masquerades as a human most of the time, there could be one in your community RIGHT NOW and you wouldn’t even know! for example. Clowns, to some people, (as all horror is subjective), are scary because they have weirdly shaped faces/proportions. Maybe one got in your face as a kid and freaked you out, before you knew what exactly a clown was, and created a deep-seated fear of them. A creepy clown in the middle of a forest is extra scary because you don’t expect one there (clowns are only in specific, easy-to-avoid places like birthday parties, circuses, and fairs). A murder clown is super-scary because murderers are scary and because of things like Pennywise and John Wayne Gacy.
So just saying “look a murder clown” doesn’t magically make something scary. Or having a dead baby, or a guy with a knife, or a person living in your walls. Let’s be honest, two sentences is not a lot of real estate to build up atmosphere or tension, creating a scary two sentence story isn’t easy. But sticking a normally-scary thing in there doesn’t do all the heavy lifting for you, either.
The opposite can be true, too. Beauty and the Beast, if you want to be unkind, is about a young woman who is being falsely imprisoned by a terrifying man in his creepy castle. But it’s not presented as a scary thing, as we know it’s a fairy tale/love story and it all works out in the end. When you read Two Sentence Horror, you know to expect things to be scary, so you can look at scary tropes and assume they’re being used in a scary context. So you do get SOME leeway, but it’s not a free pass.
Now Let’s Put It All Together…
The screw-up with the dialogue tag in sentence 2, despite being used correctly in 1. Knife Guy is capitalized, as if it’s his name. The wrong your. The inclusion that it’s midnight, the scariest time possible. The concept that Knife Guy would specifically warn you that he’s there before he (presumably) Knifes you.
The culmination of All Of That makes this incredibly funny, which is probably not the author’s intention, but it’s enjoyable to read, so it has value. It’s also a good reminder to, you know, edit your work before posting (and the power of capitalizing things to make them Hit Different).
Sentence 2, by giving the full, specific title for the game (while also misspelling despair) slows the story down to a crawl; you could have just said “Danganronpa” and it would have worked! Also the whole concept that remembering that a character exists (who’s not evenly lewdly designed) giving one a boner that is so sudden/loud(?) to reveal where someone is can only be read as comedic. Was the person-sized lump under the blanket not clue enough that the narrator is there? The fact that it was deleted within 3 minutes from being posted means the mods of r/TwoSentenceHorror probably thought it was a shitpost and not a genuine attempt to be scary. But, honestly, can we say it was, compared to everything else we’ve seen?
A story is a presentation of an idea that makes you think in a specific way, utilizing the narrative and mechanical norms of the utilized medium(s) to achieve this. All stories, regardless of medium or execution, work on the same principles. And sometimes they fail at their intended goal! But that doesn’t mean that they’re without value or merit.
To grow as a creative, you have to learn from the “good” and the “bad,” understand why people think so, determine what the creator was attempting to achieve and what allowed them to do that (or what kept them from doing so). You don’t have to invent the wheel on your own! Learn from the success and failures of others! And, most importantly, make sure to have fun! If you turn your creative process into a serious-only endeavor, you’re going to burn yourself out. You’re going to keep yourself from trying different things because “real writers” don’t do that and you’ll never be able to find your truly unique voice and style.
It’s also nice to have something funny pop up on your Twitter timeline instead of the absolutely horrible content that normally pervades it, so there’s that.