Post by Audrey Miano
It’s Halloween: time to bring out your inner ghoul, witchy gal, or garden-variety nut-job and write horror until your heart’s content! Not sure how? Here’s a list of tips on how to write your most terrifying story yet.
1. Read extensively within the horror genre
Because the desired effect of horror fiction is so specific, gaining an understanding of how the genre works is critical to writing an effective horror story. Reading the work of other horror fiction authors will help give you an idea of which writing strategies—for example, point-of-view, characterization, structure, etc.—make for a terrific horror story. That said, there’s no one right way to write horror fiction. For that reason, you’ll want to read pieces from a variety of different authors, time periods, and sub-genres (e.g. sci-fi horror, paranormal horror, existential horror) to determine which elements to include in your own writing. Here are a few examples of popular horror stories and authors to get you started: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Outsider” by H.P. Lovecraft, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, and authors Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ramsey Campbell.
2. Consider what frightens or revolts you the most
Horror is subjective; it’s possible that what one reader finds terrifying might be entirely lost on another. Allowing your own fear to come across in your writing is what’s going to make your story most realistic, and make it resonate with the most people. That’s not to say that supernatural, mystical, or grotesque elements in your writing should be abandoned in favor of realism, but if readers can’t imagine or relate to the situation you’re describing, your story won’t yield its intended effect. Draw inspiration from what truly frightens you or take an ordinary scenario and twist it into something horrifying. Allow that to do the bulk of your story’s work.
3. Create extreme emotions in your reader
The ultimate goal of your horror story will be to evoke fear in your reader. However, fear may take many forms, including dread, shock, revulsion, or paranoia. Understanding subtle differences between each of these forms of fear will make it that much easier to produce them in your reader. Dread might involve creating the unshakable sense that terrible things are about to happen; to shock your readers, you might make sudden and extreme revelations apparent in a dramatic turn of events or horrifying image. Don’t underestimate the efficacy of the gross-out factor in unnerving your reader; play on his or her instinctive fear of bodily harm or mutilation. Elicit doubt in your reader by making them question characters, surroundings, your narrator, or even their own perception of the world. Whichever strategies you choose, make them emotionally impactful.
4. Use strong, descriptive tone and language
One might say the “show, don’t tell” rule is even more important in writing horror fiction than in other genres. As a horror fiction author, you won’t necessarily be calling on your reader to analyze or interpret the story for it to produce fear but, rather, on your reader’s immediate, primal reaction to what’s on the page. That means that descriptions of settings, characters, and movements should all be infused with a sense of danger, darkness, or eeriness. Fear should follow naturally in your reader.
5. Keep your characters, and your reader, in the dark
Have you ever found that, by explaining the punchline to a joke, you’ve actually undermined its effect? The same principle applies to horror. A story will only work if certain details are left unknown to the reader—an abandoned house with no dark corners or locked doors leaves nothing to be feared or discovered, which will work against you as you try to incite dread in your reader.
6. Make your readers care about or identify with your characters
Like others on this list, this piece of advice does not apply exclusively to the horror fiction genre. Any character you write should appeal to your reader on some level, period. But this rings especially true in horror, mainly because your reader won’t experience dread, shock, or anxiety if they don’t care that bad things are happening to your characters. Your reader must have at least some desire for your characters to overcome whatever threat or challenge they might be facing, or else nothing in your story will be at stake. Force your reader to invest in your characters—even evil characters—by providing realistic and intriguing backstories, motivations, and quirks and allowing your readers to suffer when your characters do.
7. Invoke elements of tragedy—
—or, more directly, allow your characters to beget their own downfall. You don’t have to resort to the decades-old cliché where someone foolishly investigates the mysterious sound coming from inside the closet, but do prepare for characters to make missteps. Loss—whether of life, a limb, or one’s humanity—can feel that much more devastating if your reader perceives that it could have been avoided.
8. Set clear, extreme stakes for your characters
Make sure your reader knows what characters have to lose. Is it their lives? Their sanity? Their humanity itself? If your readers don’t understand the consequences of a situation, it’s unlikely they’re going to experience any unease reading your story. And while stakes should be high, remember that there are fates worse than death. Get creative when brainstorming consequences for characters, and remember that the worst thing that can happen to one is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to another.
9. Don’t be afraid to incorporate humor or moments of relief/stillness
Horror tends to lose its effect when it is unrelenting. Imagine a roller coaster with only drops and turns: no pauses, no buildup, no suspense. You wouldn’t leave that experience feeling much of anything other than exhausted. Leave room for moments of anticipation, hope, or catharsis after a horrific turn of events to keep your reader engaged and guessing. Allow him or her to relax, even if that means nothing in your story is physically happening. The contrast that these moments of relative calm will create is what’s going to make the rest of your story so terrifying.
10. Read your story out loud
First and foremost, reading your writing out loud will help you evaluate its overall flow. Identify areas where you might need to slow the plot down or add action. Reading your story out loud—ideally in front of someone else—will especially allow you to determine if your dialogue is believable. If something sounds strange when you say it out loud, it’s likely that it can be revised to be more effective. Find a few pairs of ears to sample your story, and get to editing.
Keep these tips in mind the next time you write a horror fiction piece; we look forward to seeing it in our next issue of Westwind!