It’s October, and my favorite time of year! It’s the perfect season to read, write, and think about horror stories…
As most people know, I divide my time between writing horror and romance. When it comes to horror, I’m always asked a lot of questions: How does a person write a horror story? What makes a great one? How can you make a convincing story about a monster if monsters aren’t real?
I answered all of these questions in my non-fiction writing guide, You Can Write—Really! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Fiction. Here’s an excerpt from the section on writing horror:
First, it’s important to realize that horror can take many forms – gore-filled splatter-punk with buckets of blood… mysterious, cursed people living in isolated Gothic castles (or tropical islands)… psychological unsettling horror that makes you feel uneasy… or your ordinary “classic” monsters such as vampires, ghosts, zombies, and werewolves.
My horror stories tend to be based in psychological terrors rather than blood and gore. They’re set in a wide range of seasons and settings, and my characters run the gamut from small children (The Ape) to mentally fragile suburban housewives (Sometimes Monsters are Real).
Each kind of horror story has its fans, probably because different people are scared of different things (heights, monkeys, bridges, etc.). But whatever type of horror story you write (or read) there are a few universal elements that should go into any horror tale.
Horror readers want to be scared (or at least made to feel nervous), so start scaring people on page one. Use a clever hook, details, and setting to pull readers in. Start with a pool of blood on the floor or give us all the details of your haunted house. Let readers experience what it feels like to be chased across a field by a werewolf.
In horror, you can write almost anything and get away with it. Play on childhood fears and things people hate (or are afraid of). Here’s a short list: cats, clowns, creepy dolls, being buried alive, stuffed moose heads, basements, closets, the dark…
While you’re writing, keep the tension and suspense constant. Enhance anticipation and fear in layers. Your novel or short story needs twists and turns to keep the reader engaged and wondering, “What happens next?” Be sure to end scenes (and/or chapters) with a cliffhanger or another danger.
As with any story, the author has to establish a believable setting. Whether your tale takes place in a gritty, post-apocalyptic city or a foggy rural graveyard, you need to give your readers a concrete foundation of where the story is taking place.
Readers want to feel as if they are there, experiencing the events along with the main characters. Use lots of details (sights, smells, sounds) and props to make your descriptions come alive. My story, Kropsy’s Curse makes great use of setting. What’s better than a horror story set in a graveyard on Halloween?
Remember, your job as a writer is to get readers to suspend their (dis)belief and buy into your story. You don’t have to go into a lengthy explanation of how these strange things are possible, just give your readers a compelling reason, have your characters believe it, and move on. In my novella, Dead Til Dawn, the heroine finds herself transported back in time after walking through a mysterious fog. She doesn’t understand how or why it’s possible, but she’s forced to accept it… if she wants to survive.
If your antagonist is a monster (of the non-human variety) you must believe your monster is real (whether he’s a vampire, a werewolf, or a slimy sewer creature). If you don’t write the creature believably, readers won’t buy into it. Make your monster as real as any other human character and show him in action.
And because your monster is not human, it’s okay for readers to hate him. They should know he’s bad news from the start of the story, so make him awful. You don’t want readers (or other characters) sympathizing with your monster — you want them to fear him.
If your monster is human (serial killer), depict him at his worst. Don’t shy away from showing him doing really bad, socially unacceptable things. Horror stories are generally dark and explore themes and ideas that expose the bad side of people. If you’re not comfortable going to “the dark side” to write terrifying stuff, you may want to consider writing thrillers or suspense stories.
Your human “monster” needs to be fleshed out. Develop his character through details, give him a history, and show why he’s so warped. If your villain is a racist, show readers how nasty he is through his actions, dialogue, or vocabulary. Make readers hate him. Get readers emotionally involved so they can’t wait for him to get what he deserves in the end. (And he will!)
When creating a human monster, take cues from reality. Most predators are cunning, manipulative, without remorse or conscience, and have a sense of entitlement. They’re great at tricking people and identifying weak spots or vulnerabilities. They are practiced liars and good at covering their tracks to avoid detection. In general, people underestimate them. Many serial killers blend into society and nobody suspects a thing—now isn’t that scary?
And try to avoid clichés like the plague! Masked killers hunting campers in the woods, serial-killing cannibal families, miserable Goth vampires in period costume, and mindless zombie attacks have all been done to… well, death. And please don’t mix monsters. Only include one primary menace/monster in your story. Don’t have vampires, werewolves, zombies, and demons attacking a cursed town during a full moon on Halloween. It’s overkill – and not in a good way.
When writing horror, don’t be afraid to break patterns, make your characters different, or have them go against stereotype. Give readers something unexpected, turn a cliché on its ear, or use a different point of view – it’ll make your work stand out. Why not set your werewolf story in Hawaii? My paranormal romance, Confessions of a Vampire’s Lover, takes place where you normally don’t find vampires... the beach!
We all know that October is “horror month” because of Halloween, but there are plenty of spooky things going on the rest of the year. Loyal readers and writers of horror fiction know that a good horror story is just as scary on a warm June day as it is at midnight on Halloween. Remember, JAWS took place in the summer, and a haunted house can be terrifying on a rainy March afternoon…
Remember, when writing horror, the only limit is your imagination!
Here are two writing exercises to motivate you to write a horror story of your own. How will you scare people?
EXERCISE 1: Take one of these first lines and write a few paragraphs about it. See what ideas come to you as you start writing.
Steve knew his house was haunted, but that didn’t bother him. He had bigger problems.
On a warm June day, the body of Ann Marie Duncan washed up on shore.
Mike got a strange call from Dave on Friday. After that, he never heard from him again.
EXERCISE 2: Here are some wild “what if” questions to get you thinking about story ideas. Pick a few and write three to five paragraphs about each. What if…
…your character inherited a haunted house and knew the ghosts?
…a killer picks his victims according to their birth sign?
…the weird Goth kid down the block really is a vampire?
…a woman finds a blood-soaked clown hiding in her garage?
Ready to write? Order your copy of You Can Write—Really! here:
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Next week I'll be sharing a look at my favorite horror movies! Stay tuned to be scared!