In honor of October, here are some tips for writing horror stories.
Leandra and Gwen
Writing Tips: Writing Horror Stories
- Write relatable characters: This is always important, but it’s especially important in horror. Your audience has to root for your characters and want them to live; otherwise, much of the suspense in the story is gone. Most horror stories are a fight for survival. If your audience doesn’t care if your characters die, they won’t find your story suspenseful. One horror trope (that of the clueless or disbelieving character) often disobeys this rule. If your character is stupid/cynical beyond reason, your audience will quickly become frustrated with them and stop caring about them (on a side note, making sure your characters are acting rationally-or as rationally as expected-will make your threat scarier because your audience will actually feel like they would be in danger in that situation). For more character writing tips, check out our post on writing well-developed characters (https://pagesoffictionblog.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/writing-tips-writing-well-developed-characters/).
- Creep your audience out by giving your character a goal and letting them achieve it early: Most stories are centered on characters achieving goals. If a character starts with a big goal, we’ve been conditioned as readers to expect that the plot of the story revolves around them achieving it. If your character gets what they want but two-thirds of the story is left, your readers will start imagining how the rest of the plot will proceed. You’ve got the unknown, you’ve got the suspense…and your readers have the creeps. If you do this, make sure that the premature accomplishment cycles back into your story to tie up loss ends. Make it come with a price!
- Keep things a little unknown by manipulating your readers’ senses: The unknown is almost always scarier than the known. The more we know about a problem, the easier it is to solve. There are two easy ways to keep things unknown while still providing enough information to stimulate your readers’ imagination. Firstly, cut vision out of your descriptions. Instead of describing a monster as “striding towards Rachel,” say how “Rachel could hear the heavy footsteps getting louder, and the stench of blood was getting stronger and stronger.” Most humans rely mostly on their vision; keeping sight out of the equation will make them feel like they’re missing vital information (even though they still know everything you need them to). This literally keeps your readers in the dark. You can also describe what things aren’t instead of what they are. (For example, use “the monster wasn’t quite bear-like; even if it had walked on four legs, the muzzle was not quite the right shape, and the ears were too big, and the fur was too mangy. Still, its eyes were all predator,” instead of “the monster looked like a mangy bear, except it had a pointed muzzle and large ears and walked upright.”). This keeps the creature from falling into your readers’ heuristics, and, once again, makes it harder for them to conceptualize how to solve the problem you present.
- Keep it close to reality: If you really want to scare readers, make your threat something they could easily imagine encountering. This doesn’t mean that you have to completely avoid the supernatural (though many horrors deal with serial killers and other completely non-magical threats), but it does mean that your story should have some semblance of reality to it. If you throw too much unnaturalness at the reader, your world will be too separate from ours for the reader to feel concerned. For bonus points, make your supernatural creature a representation of real fears (for example, werewolves were originally written to reflect the very real fear of contracting rabies-you can probably do something more relevant, but that’s the general idea).
- Keep death and injury meaningful: Some horror writers treat deaths like candy and throw them in indiscriminately. However, if you kill too many characters, death will stop meaning anything to your audience. They’ll just assume everyone dies. By keeping death sparse, you keep hope, and your readers keep caring. Additionally, you can write the deaths you put in for all they’re worth and really get use out of them instead of just throwing them around for shock factor. On a related note, if your characters should be getting battered up through your story, make it happen and make it stick. If one character gets hit in the leg, they should be hobbling and slow for the rest of the story!
One final note: when writing horror, please be aware of your audience and warn accordingly. Some people like being scared, some don’t, and some do but have boundaries. If you deal with mature and/or triggering themes, please put warnings before your work so your readers know what they’re getting into.