You’re probably here because you want to know how to write a horror story and improve your own writing. In which case, you’re in the right place!
Horror stories have been deeply embedded in every one of our cultures since time began, from myths and legends of the past to the computer games and movies of today. So how do you learn how to write a horror story that will last the test of time?
I was going to open this article with a quote by the modern master of horror, Stephen King. But after five minutes of cursory web searches, I realised that every other ‘how to write a scary story’ article starts in exactly the same way, so let’s not do that.
Instead, let’s look to horror writer, Kurt Vonnegut, who not only gave us Slaughterhouse-Five but also his fair share of juicy writing tips, like this one:
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them.Kurt Vonnegut
And that, right out of the gate, sets the tone for this article, where I aim to provide some practical tips and considerations for any reader looking to flex their spooky muscles and sink their teeth into a spot of horror genre writing.
What Is Horror Writing?
Horror writing is fiction that falls within the scope of the horror genre, whether literary (novels, novellas, anthologies, short story collections, zines, fiction magazines, graphic novel and comic books, flash fiction and drabbles); film and television; audio (horror anthology podcasts, audio dramas, radio plays); theatre; subreddits; or creepypastas (horror-related legends shared across the internet). Luckily, for those looking to write horror stories, there are many different outlets in which horror writers can get their words seen, heard or read these days.
Writing horror can be loosely defined (although I take issue and care with such prescribed descriptions) as “writing that inspires fear, horror, unquiet, terror, repulsion.” Basically, anything that scares, startles or unsettles the reader.
‘But any kind of book can creep you out!’ I hear you say. Exactly, which is why applying such loosey-goosey descriptors to such a wide and varied landscape can be problematic. So let’s try and hone it down a little.
To me, horror covers a massive range of topics, emotions, themes, styles and approaches – not everything can be given the same ‘gothic horror’ or ‘Lovecraftian’ labels. Horror writing can, by default of the genre, be an intensely personal, cathartic and individual genre to write in. And, like most genres, it can be quite nuanced.
So how many different book categories fall under the term ‘horror’? Some of the most common horror genre descriptors include:
- Gothic horror
- Comedy horror
- Folk horror (my particular jam)
- Dark fantasy
- Body horror (another personal favourite)
- Erotic horror
- Science fiction horror (sign me up for all the spooky aliens please)
I could go on…
The problem (and beauty) of this genre is that horror is a multi-faceted diamond, with ample room for genre-blending. This is important for me as a horror writer because, as you can probably tell, I’m not a huge fan of being pinned with one strict badge. I like the idea of fluidity and blurred definitions in fiction.
But that needn’t be a negative thing! It means that the horror genre can be the perfect place for those who want to flex their stylistic muscles. As a writer, this makes writing horror stories extra exciting, because within each idea there are endless possibilities!
But producing great horror writing (and instilling fear in the hearts of readers) is easier said than done. To really understand how to write an effective horror story let us first look at the history of the genre.
The History Of Horror Writing
As a genre, horror fiction often gets maligned as speculative, lumping it into an umbrella category that also covers fantasy and science fiction amongst other ‘sub’ genres (a definition I also struggle with, hence the single quotes).
If we take a closer look at the history of our favourite fear factor genre, and consider the many accomplished horror authors, the idea of horror writing being a ‘sub’ category is totally preposterous. No one would argue that Mary Shelly, Angela Carter, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Robert Louis Stephenson were lesser writers in any way!
Whether you enjoy reading or writing gothic horror, gory horror novels, or psychological fear-inducing books…the idea of scaring readers is nothing new (or scaring viewers too, if slasher films and horror movies are your kinds of thing).
There’s some debate as to where, when, and by whom the horror genre was founded. The general consensus places responsibility at the feet of Horace Walpole for his 1764 novel Castle of Otranto, although Mary Shelley is often credited with writing the world’s first commercial science fiction novel (Frankenstein), which is also often described as gothic horror.
The likes of Walpole and Shelley may have brought the horror genre to the masses in the form of the printed word, but where did they get their inspiration from? Well, myths and legends aren’t exactly low on vivid descriptions when it comes to gross-out horror tales of severed heads tumbling, evil spirits and scary monsters attacking. It seems that, from the very moment human beings learned how to fear, we learned how to tell stories that scare us too.
Tapping into the emotions of a reader is the number one way to get their attention and keep them turning the page. And what emotion is more visceral, alarming, and ever-present in a human than fear?
So how do we exploit our common fears and turn them into horror fiction?
How To Write A Horror Story
Many writers, at some point or other, have been inspired to write a great horror story. After all, nothing is scarier than our own imaginations. Yet few get around to penning that horror novel. Why? Because good horror stories aren’t easy to write, and even if your horror novel is great you may still question it (even Stephen King threw Carrie in the bin!).
In short, writing a great horror story is no different to writing any type of fiction. I’m not here to discuss the general structure of a novel (although we have plenty of blogs that talk about that) – I’m here to show you how to take your scary story and make it exceptionally terrifying.
Again, there is a lot of content out there about the craft of writing horror stories, much of it built around the idea that, as a writer, you need to include a certain number of elements or follow a series of steps or adhere to a formula in order to write a decent horror story.
So whilst I don’t disagree with the notion that yes, keeping an eye on structure and commonly used ‘ingredients’ might give a writer some focus as they work, I struggle with prescriptive techniques and feel that shoe-horning elements into a story for the sake of making it ‘horror’ can dilute the end product quite considerably.
So let’s take a look at what to include in your story for unforgettable horror fiction.
What Makes A Good Horror Story? Our 7 Top Tips
For me, it’s about finding a balance between what is technically a good story in terms of plot, structure, attention to detail, narrative, characters, descriptive prose etc, and then writing something raw and real, from the gut. And that, for me, is the starting point for most of my stories.
I write emotionally, reactively, and often begin by asking myself this: What scares me most? So before you start writing your bestselling horror novel, let’s take a look at my top seven tips for captivating a reader’s imagination…
1. Tap Into Common Fears
Fear is our oldest and strongest emotion – it kept our ancestors alive, after all. And it’s what readers enjoy feeling when they search for a good horror story.
So, before you get too bogged down in the technicalities of writing, think about this: what scares you? Really, truly, scares you? Is it walking alone at night in the dark? Is it the idea of abandonment? Commitment and relationships? Spiders? The quiet of your house late at night? Storms? Cats? Other people?
It can be mundane or profound, but fear is incredibly personal to each individual and that is the biggest strength a writer can flex: a unique perspective on something that may affect many of us (fear of growing old, for example), or be specific to a very small group of people (the fear of dying by choking to death on a fridge magnet shaped like Ronald McDonald). The point is, nobody else is going to feel exactly the way you do about this specific fear and that should always, in my opinion, be the starting point.
For example, I once wrote a story about man-eating cows. Why? Because when I used to go hiking in the English countryside, cows scared the heck out of me. Their substantial size aside, they stare, and you can interpret that in two ways, as a writer: curiosity, or, (hear me out), hunger. Once the idea of hungry cows staring at you as you walk through their domain took hold, the rest of the story followed naturally. Two hikers. A beautiful sunny day. Gorgeous meadow, flowers and butterflies all around. Hidden beneath the grass: bones. Because the cows in that field don’t eat grass. From a simple, knee-jerk reaction, a story blossomed.
So I keep a list, of my own fears and things that others have talked to me about, and I use it as a starting point. Many other stories, novels and movies are built in the same way.
2. Horror Story Inspiration Is Everywhere
The beauty of horror (and most fiction, to be honest) is that you can take any mundane, everyday object or experience and turn it into something terrifying – and I’m not just talking about a creepy doll or spooky settings!
The juxtaposition of making something that isn’t scary, into something murderous, is one of the most terrifying things a writer can do. Clowns are meant to make you laugh, but tell Stephen King that (It). Children are innocent and harmless, but tell David Seltzer that (Omen). Or how about birds? Birds can’t hurt you…right? Tell Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock that (The Birds).
One of the best examples of this I can remember is this short story about a carton of eggs by Garon Cockrell. I won’t ruin it for you, but the premise is fantastic: What would happen if one day, the eggs in your carton started to talk to you?
Your breakfast will never be the same again!
Or why not take a look at our horror prompts to kick-start your imagination?
3. Point Of View Matters
This may surprise you, but horror doesn’t have to always be ‘jump out of your seat’ or ‘can’t sleep at night’ scary. I’m a big fan of grief horror, quiet horror, and all sorts of horrible stories that don’t actually have, at their heart, a desire to frighten.
However, if that is your goal – to inspire terror in the reader – then thinking about the pov from which the story is written matters. Anyone who has frequented subreddits (a huge home for many horror shorts) like r/nosleep, will know that their stories are written exclusively in the first person.
Writing in first person pov immediately lends a more intimate, conversational perspective, with the added effect of blurring the lines between fiction and reality. When reading a story where you can only see things from the protagonist’s point of view, you empathise with them more – which makes for a much more interesting read when the leading character is a gruesome murderer!
Writing in the third person, on the other hand, allows the writer to show more than one point of view at once and distances the reader from the story a little. And second point of view? Well, that’s a fun one. That’s the narrator talking directly to the reader or another character. Absolutely perfect for a predatory psychological thriller or horror story (ie You by Caroline Kepnes).
4. Give Wicked Characters Motivation
It’s not good enough to have bad characters in your book, and have bad things happen, simply to build suspense. Of course, that’s needed to create tension and keep your reader gripped – but you also need context and – most importantly – motivation.
Very few people are born evil, and very few dolls get possessed for no reason. If your character doesn’t have a good enough reason to want to eat all the people in the village, if the zombies in the woods suddenly appeared for no reason, and if your villain has no origin story, then no one is going to believe the horrors they are reading and (most importantly) they won’t care if the victims live or die.
This leads us beautifully to…
5. Tragedy And Trauma
There’s no trigger like a trauma trigger. And that can often be the tipping point for any main character’s change from ‘nice guy’ to ‘omg, he’s coming!!’
In the short sci-fi horror story, The Fly, by George Langelaan, François’ sister-in-law Hélène tells him that she has just killed his brother. We then discover the macabre tale of his mad scientist brother turning into a horrific creature when animals got trapped in his transmitter machine and turned him into a horrifying human hybrid.
You can’t get more traumatic than that, and not just for the protagonist but for the victim, his wife who had to kill him, and the readers!
Chuck Wendig has a wonderful horror-reading site Terrible Minds to help you with your writing. Wendig says horror is better when a tragedy takes its truest ethereal form – “The drama comes from character mistakes and from poor decision-making.”
So true. Had the scientist been less eager to prove himself right, or been more careful, none of that would have happened. But then nothing exciting happens in books where everyone makes the right decision!
6. Make The Stakes Obvious
This one is an obvious one too, but how much does the main character have to lose? In every great horror story, you need a main character who sets out to achieve something and keeps coming close to failing (even if that ‘something’ is simply surviving).
In HBO’s hit series, and popular comic, The Walking Dead, not only is the main character Rick trying to not get bitten by a zombie, but he’s also looking for his wife and kid. Then as the series progresses, he builds relationships with people who die, his family isn’t safe, and his community is under threat not just by the living dead but other survivors. And so the more he tries to be human, and connect with those he loves, the more he has to lose and the higher the stakes are.
After all, you won’t find a horror story where the main character doesn’t care if they live or die (unless that’s one of your plot twists)!
7. Remember: Writing Horror Is Fun!
And lastly – have fun! This may sound strange, when you’re writing tens of thousands of words about people being terrifying, hunted, dismembered, eaten alive or simply haunted by a supernatural entity. But any writer of horror needs to remember that their readers are reading horror fiction because they ENJOY IT. So you must have fun writing it too.
Where To Find Today’s Best Horror Writers
Before you write a horror story, you must first devour as many horror stories as you can – which means watching, reading, listening and enjoying as much of the genre as possible.
I mentioned above that horror writing covers a wide variety of materials, showcasing some of the best horror story creators. Here are a few of the most popular, well-known examples:
As well as reading work by popular horror writers, such as Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe and I. Stine – check out all creepy stories from various genres. Female writers and books written for a younger audience rarely get as much press in this category, yet often give some really unique twists to well-known horror story classics and offer a fresh perspective on the genre.
Writing horror doesn’t just mean books or a short story – many TV series, movies, and even novel adaptations first began as comics, graphic novels, and manga. These are always a great place to start:
Movies And Television
From cinema, to Netflix, Prime and Apple+, it’s never been easier to discover your latest favourite horror screenwriter or director. And don’t forget to check out creepy series and classic films too!
Some of the most popular at the moment include:
Audio Dramas, Horror Anthology Podcasts
If you can’t get to sleep at night, perhaps listening to a horror story won’t help – but, nevertheless, here are some of my favourites!
This is just a small collection. There are so many high quality audio fiction pods out there that it could take you years to listen to them all!
Type ‘nosleep’ into Reddit, and voila! A massive, massive repository of epistolary horror known as ‘creepypastas’ at your fingertips.
Prepare to spend hours of your life reading these fictional ‘first hand’ accounts of spooky, weird, and downright unexplainable goings-on. You can even contribute your own stories, which is a good way to practise the craft- just be wary of several things:
The strict rules for posting, and the fact that Reddit’s terms and conditions do not offer the writer much in the way of copyright protection and rights. It is not unusual for YouTube narrators, for example, to use these subreddits for content to narrate on their own, monetised channels- all well and good if you are credited and compensated, but many YouTubers don’t do that, so be aware of the pitfalls before you do place your content there.
That being said, the horror community on Reddit is extremely lively and many creators like S.H.Cooper and C.K.Walker (to name a few) have gone on to great things.
And that brings us to the end of this ‘how to write a horror story’ article. I hope you have learned lots of interesting ways to really tap into your readers’ fears, and I hope you enjoy all the creepy research I’ve suggested.
But most of all, I hope you have as much fun creating your terrifying worlds as I do, because without the gift of feeling fear none of us would be here today enjoying these great stories. After all, there’s nothing better than enjoying a big fright while safely tucked up in your bed (just make sure you never look beneath it!).
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