Humor vs. Horror in under 2 minutes

Much like science fiction and fantasy, humor and horror are close cousins.  Both genres rely on a suspenseful build to a surprise.  Both are entirely subjective and both are difficult to do well.

The setup

Suspenseful expectation is critical for humor and horror writing.  A monster needs to be made terrifying over time or it won’t scare anyone.  The same rule goes for a comedic situation that gets funnier as it develops.

Think of the similar build that runs through “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “the Call of Cthulhu.”  Both sources use shocking details and (sometimes) grotesque descriptions to elicit reactions.  In each, there is a balancing element, such as a straight man or a character who serves as the voice of reason.   Just as importantly, there is an element of the unknown in which the point of view character faces the unexpected.

Timing and execution

Not everyone is funny.  That’s fine, because not everybody is scary either.  However, the delivery of the surprise is a critical skill for both genres.  The difference is often what the surprise is and how it is presented.  An overly simple example is having a character walk in a dark hallway when she slips and falls.  If she slips on the blood of a severed head, the story is horror.  If she slips on a banana peel, it’s humor. 


The difference between humor and horror is the difference between a Dracula movie starring Gary Oldman or one staring Leslie Nielsen.  Even if you use the same script and cast other than the lead, the outcome will differ because the subjective expectation changes the delivery. 

An intertwined connection

There are noises in your kitchen at 3 a.m.  If you walk downstairs to investigate and find that the noises came from your cat’s insatiable lust for eating and vomiting parsley, then you’ve felt the tense buildup and release of humor.  If, after cleaning up cat puke, you turn around and see the broken lock on your now open front door, then you know how close humor and horror are.

A Framework for Writing in 3 Minutes

Writing fiction is difficult.  There are so few rules, and even the rules that do exist can and should be broken from time to time.  

Essays were always easier for me to write.  Argumentative and expository pieces have an expected frame from which to work.  There are thesis statements, supporting details, topic sentences, concluding paragraphs, and calls to action that don’t all overlap neatly with fiction writing.  

The learning curve for someone like me is to organize stories into a framework that makes sense.  

The Set-Up

A story is a person who is in a situation and has a problem.  However you want to weigh the priority of these three factors is up to you.  No story exists without them in one form or another. 

The First Failure

The main character has to fail.  If your person succeeds too early, then the problem is trivial and not worth telling.  This should be the attempt that is most in line with who the character is in the beginning of the story before any change occurs. 

The Second Failure

The person in your story should fail a second time.  This is an attempt to either dig deeper into his or her bag of tricks or try something out of their comfort zone.  Growth and learning occurs, even though it is not enough … yet.


This is when the result of growth is shown.  The main character succeeds by wielding a new talisman, cooperating with an old enemy, or figuring out the problem in a way that they never knew existed.  People need to develop and failure is a great way to learn how to win.

People need to be given a reason to care about a story.  A worthy obstacle and character development are great places to start.  

The Writing Process: The Teacher/Student Writing Conference and Final Draft

The one-on-one teacher/student conference serves as the model for professional interaction. While the class is working independently or in a quiet group, the teacher schedules time to meet with each student regarding their working draft. This is where the the teacher models the most effective methods for conferencing, including the steps taught to students earlier for the purposes of Peer Editing.

The teacher offers compliments and suggestions on the working draft and reviews the corrections made on the document. This is more than an explanation of the grade the paper earned. This is a 5-7 minute discussion of how this particular writing piece can be improved and which skills the student needs to review in order to perform a successful revision. When the conference is finished, the student takes their writing back and prepares a final draft.

The topics discussed get recorded on a chart that goes into the student’s individual writing folder.    This chart allows the teacher to review previous meetings and make sure that progress is being made over the course of the year.  A copy of the chart that I use can be found here: Teacher-Student Conference Sheet

Unless there is need for further revision, this publishable piece is the last word that the student has on the assignment… for now.

It is the teacher’s judgment how harshly this draft should be graded. Typically, I use restraint and look for whether the student made constructive use of the suggestions and corrections I made on the working draft. I try not to mark this document up too much because I use it for later assignments, such as the student portfolio or Vertical Peer Editing and Conferencing.

The final draft is attached on top of the working draft, editor’s comments, rough draft, and prewriting and placed into the student’s writing folder.

The Writing Process: How to use Rough Drafts

Once students have a sense of what they want to write and how they want to write it, it is time to draft.  Often, many teachers discard the first draft as a throw away and miss the many teachable opportunities it brings to writers.

Should Rough Drafts be timed in class or assigned for homework?

Chief among these teachable opportunities is the importance of time and stress management. Working in line with my core value of keeping instruction authentic, it is my belief that all first drafts should be timed, in-class assignments. This is more than a method for preparing my students for the state standardized test. A large portion of a student’s career from middle school through graduate school relies on a series of timed assessments that ask for an in-class rough draft. A student who is better prepared to prewrite and draft under timed conditions will have an easier time in higher education.

How should Rough Drafts be used when they are done?

The second opportunity is for students to review their thought process. After the rough draft is completed, students will have two documents (the draft and the prewrite) to review what they truly know about the topic. Students engage in a process of self-discovery about their mastery of content and organization. If a student finds that they know far more about the subject than what is written, then they’ll have the chance to self-assess and amend their writing. If a student’s draft is highly disorganized, they can review their evidence of thought in the prewriting stage. The teachable opportunity is for a student to recognize the value of self-correction.

Tip #1

Rough Drafts are not for the teacher to grade critically.  A simple satisfactory or unsatisfactory grade is fine.  This draft will be peer edited and revised further in later steps.

Tip #2

Staple the Rough Draft on top off the Prewriting to begin a paper trail that documents the progression of the student’s thoughts.  Remember to always place the newest copy on top so that the most recent work is what an observer sees first.

The Writing Process: How to Teach Prewriting

Prewriting is personal. No two people think exactly the same way. There are, however, certain styles of prewriting that appeal to different thinkers. Over the years, I developed a system of labeling students’ various prewriting styles.


Ordered prewriting is the process of categorizing and sorting. Two examples of this style are questioning and outlining. Through questioning, students organize their thoughts by writing answers to Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions regarding the topic. An outline is a formal list with headings and subheadings and can serve as the frame for a much longer piece of writing. The table of contents in most book is an example of an outline.


Graphic prewriting is a system of drawing the ideas behind the topic. There are countless examples, but each one visually represents the concept in some way. When students use a web, or mind-map as it is sometimes called, they write the topic in the center of a sheet of paper and draw a line linking related ideas to it. They continue linking ideas until the web is complete. T-Charts and Venn Diagrams are also examples of graphic prewriting techniques since both separate and contrast ideas through spacial reasoning.


Liberated prewriting allows thoughts to flow naturally as they occur. Through free writing, the writer writes every thought that comes to mind relevant to the topic. When students choose to list, they will write words or short phrases in quick succession as thoughts occur. This “stream of consciousness” allows for the uninterrupted flow of creative ideas, but can get messy and confusing if the ideas are not later reviewed for continuity of thought.  

Tip #1

Teach students to underline, circle, highlight, and cross out with abandon within their prewriting to lump similar ideas together.  Prewriting is not supposed to be pretty, nor is it intended to be a submitted piece for summative assessment.

Tip #2

Teach each style of prewriting with trial prompts so that students have a chance to test which prewriting technique is most comfortable for them. Once you do this, STEP BACK and let your learners decide which style works for them.  As long as they are organizing their thoughts well, your job is done.


Download a handout of my system for organizing prewriting strategies here: Pre-writing (Brainstorming) Methods