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Horror Story Writing Tips
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
– Stephen King
Writing great horror is a bloody art. And while the horror story has been the bastion of some of the greatest authors of past and present, it’s no easy task to write great horror fiction.
It pays to have a little help. Be it long form or short form, here’s some of our best tips for writing great horror,
1. Axe wielding maniac or haunted house, the rules of story telling still apply
There’s no getting round it. Good writing is good writing. Just like adding more aliens and starships isn’t going to make a dogs breakfast into Science Fiction, adding more surprise eviscerations and bloodthirsty chainsaw wielding psychopaths won’t make a horror story better, especially if it doesn’t have interesting characters and a cohesive plot (note: I didn’t say complex).
Everything you learned in school about creative writing is probably true. Yes we all want to smash the traditions of form and style but there’s a reason Frankenstein and Carrie and Let The Right One In and The Exorcist are all good books regardless of their age and that’s because they tell a good story…
… with spinning heads and vomit and stuff.
2. The best horror is character driven… through the heart
Your antagonist can be a mysterious guy in a van, or a be-tentacled psychopathic alien God with inhuman motivations, but the motivations of your central characters (even as they are slowly whittled away in numbers) are what drives the plot.
If we can relate to someone before they die, great! But that doesn’t mean you have to jump into the give-the-cheerleader-a-redeeming-moment-so-we-know-absolutely-positively-that-she’s-going-to-die cliche.
Red herrings are better than Mary Sues and getting your reader inside the heads of your characters is what will make them tremble, and keep reading anyway.
3. It’s not always about body count
Sure, there’s a certain romanticism with taking a bunch of hormonal teens on summer vacation, giving them a bit of backstory and then eviscerating them one by one to make a complex ethical statement about teen drug use, but horror is more than just body count.
Sometimes it’s the thing that goes bump in the night, or in slowly unravelling inevitability of what’s to come.
Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado” is a good example. It’s almost entirely a single long scene, where we feel the impending fear, the expectation that something is about to happen, right up to when it does.
Cask not only telegraphs the impending Horror, it exceeds our expectations. That’s what makes it great.
4. The killer in you is the killer in me
We’re all killers, metaphorically speaking. While your deranged psychopath or Satan worshipping mountain cult or demon-possessed cyborg from the future might manifest that murderous intent most clearly, horror is about our own deep dark secrets.
Every hero has their dark side. And sometimes horror villains are sympathetic. Frankenstein’s Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the paragon of the misunderstood villains. And though the horror elements might have paled since this book first came out (it was first published in 1818) Frankenstein’s monster poses the quandary of the misunderstood outsider, the ‘monster’ that is a surrogate for our own fears.
Just like every writer must kill their darlings, so good Horror writing is more about understanding ourselves than vilifying an other.
5. Everyone’s afraid of something
Sometimes it’s the unknown, ghost stories, urban legends, or things that go bump in the night. Other times its something more oblique.
Find a niche fear and make it real for the reader. David Fincher’s Se7en took the seven deadly sins as it’s guide, and Arachnophobia (a good example of comic horror) played on a now well-known fear. But there are thousands of under-explored phobias, fetishes and perverted desires waiting to manifest themselves on the page.
And that goes for your characters as well. Even the most world-weary veteran has a fear, a trigger, something that puts them in the corner. Getting that right is what great horror writing is all about.
6. Horror isn’t fantasy or science fiction, but it can be
Even the best horror writers rely on some deus ex machina to cross the finish line now and then (The Stand, Stephen King). But that doesn’t mean writers should emulate others at their worst.
Poe was a master of combining supernatural and the occult into his horror. The worlds of Poe’s characters rode the line between what was real, imagination, hallucination, and the immaterial beyond. That murky zone is where all good horror lies, regardless of whether it’s slasher fiction, mystery, SciFi Horror or horror fantasy.
And fantasy doesn’t always have to be an allegory for real life. Sometimes an insane mask wearing killer is just that. Not everything has to be a relatable metaphor, sometimes it’s fun just to watch archetypes we don’t particularly like get ripped to shreds. It’s a cathartic hack, not a life hack.
7. Horror can be an element of any story
Remember House of Leaves?
Mark Z. Danielewski’s linguistic labyrinth, a book about a guy who finds an essay about a documentary that isn’t real and yet strangely is one of the realest things you will ever read about.
At its heart, House of Leaves has a strong horror element. Primarily psychological, and drawing from long traditions of WHAT PEOPLE ARE AFRAID OF, the fear is fear of the unknown, and fear of what lies on the next page, yet being unable to turn the page anyway.
Master that, and you’ll be a genius of horror yet.
Writing Tips | Writing Tips For Horror Stories