How to Write Horror

October 15, 2008
Welcome to Horror Writing 101, your one stop guide to scaring the wits out of people.

Stephen King once said he writes horror on 3 levels, Terrifying, Scaring, and if all else fails shock/gross-out. Let’s start with the last one.

Shock/ Gross out: this is the lowest form of scary, it barely requires talent. Say one of your relatives just screamed out in the middle of the conversation. You would be scared for a second, but Horror is far from this. Gross-Out is similar, if you simply saw gore you would be grossed-out but hardly scared. Most horrible stories rely on these 2 things, it lacks the effect of suspense.

Scaring: this scares you for a while, however does not make you jump out of your skin. This attacks a single fear of something, something that everyone is scared of. The 2 things people fear most are (don’t say public speech as one of them, for public speech is more simply something that you don’t want to do) death and darkness. These are the unknown, because there is no FACT to what happens after death. The human is weakened by the dark, we have lost the sense we most rely on. The scary scenes are usually shrouded in darkness, so when writing you should set up in the dark. Another tool is breaking the rules to what someone knows. Books like “It” by Stephen King used this by way of clown. We all think of clowns as happy, funny people (most of us anyway). By changing them into a horrible creature to be feared. The same thing they do to cute little children. They also take little things like TV’s turning on by themselves. Next up comes

Terrifying: this is just scary, a little bit more though. This is where the unknown truly comes in. Going into detail in a scene supposedly messes up the entire thing. You need to leave gaps in the horror for the readers to fill in with their imagination like they did in “The Birds”. Just plain gore is not scary, no matter what. Let’s bring up a sketch of a story:
1. Intro: normally just a boring little blurb to put in a story line.
2. Shocker: yes, the lowest form is useful for establishing it as a scary story.
3. Suspense: the audience expects something, they just don’t know when it will be.
4. Be afraid, very afraid: scare them, terrify them, make them scream.
5. A (not so) happy ending: end it, it can be happy, yet it is horror, so might as well end it horribly.
Clichés to avoid:
No characters crawling towards sounds coming from closets. We hate this, they hate this.
No complicated story lines involving a long history of what’s happening, horror shouldn’t require thinking.
No morals at the end.
No copying other people’s plot.
Do NOT use the word BOO!
Don’t make it extremely complicated.
No mad scientists.
No “good” monsters (Edward Cullen, Casper).
Using terms like “all of a sudden”

There are a million other things I could list but I don’t want this to be too long. Next are things that are good for a story to be, well, better:
“Based on a true story” is a sometimes good literary device.
Mix the realistic with the unrealistic.
Flashbacks.
Suspense: this needs a little more explanation. As I mentioned before, the first glimpse of horror should cause shock in the reader. This lets them know “I’m going to be scared”. You then slowly creep up to the next moment. Throw in things that make them think they know what will happen such as “I slowly walked to the door, opened it and peered inside. I jumped back as I saw a man standing right across the room. As I looked closely I noticed it was simply a mirror, so I ventured further into the deserted house.” Suspense it key to a good horror story.

O.K., picture these two things and think which is scarier. I’d say close your eyes, but you can’t read and close your eyes at the same time:

1. I walked into the basement and approached a green oak door with a brass handle. I opened it to see a well-lit circular room with little furniture. All of a sudden, the lights flickered out and as I turned around to leave I heard the lock click. In another corner of the room I heard a shrill scream.

2. I walked into the basement and approached a green oak door with a brass handle. I opened it to see a well-lit circular room with little furniture. All of a sudden, the lights flickered out and as I turned around to leave I heard the lock click. I then heard footsteps, not big footsteps but tiny ones as if it were a little child. Next, I heard giggling and something brushed past my leg.

Most of you will say that number 2 scared you more. This is because the human mind computes a scream as something you know, and would simply back up and start swinging at the air, as if in danger.

Number 2 however made you think more along the lines of, where did this child come from, why is it giggling, should I help him/her, does he/she want to eat my intestines. You need to know the reader places themselves into the place of the protagonist, you need to make sure the main character has as little as possible power, giving the audience a feeling of little power.

Class dismissed, oh and one last thing. Happy Halloween!





Join the Discussion

This article has 1 comment. Post your own now!

brooke M. said...
Oct. 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm
This was super helpful, definetly the most help I've had by far! Kudos to you!  
 
bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback